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A call for limits on children's food ads

Are your kids ready to replace Coca-Cola, Fritos and Cocoa Puffs with orange juice, pretzels and an apple?

Responding to an explosion in ads for food that targets children, a consumer group Wednesday proposed nutrition-based limits on marketing aimed at kids that would halt ads for sugary snacks and fatty foods.

Suggested guidelines from the Center for Science in the Public Interest would restrict ads to those drinks made mostly from juice or without added sugars, and those foods low in fat, added sugars and salt.

"The problem with food marketing these days is that it almost exclusively is used to encourage children to eat unhealthy foods," said Margo Wootan, the center's director of nutrition.

The guidelines would impact not just products like Doritos, but also Wheat Thins and Triscuits, and not just Gatorade but iced teas.

In fact the center — the nation's foremost food scold — would endorse children's marketing only for foods with less than 30 percent of total calories from fat (excepting nuts and peanut butter), with saturated and trans fats accounting for less than 10 percent; less than 25 percent of calories from added sugars; less than 150 mg of sodium per serving; and package sizes that don't exceed the portions listed on nutrition fact labels.

This would encourage ads for somewhat less glamorous products: whole grains, baked chips, low-fat milk and some healthier fast-food meals, like one from Burger King featuring a hamburger and applesauce.

They would also factor in a company's entire menu. A restaurant chain with just a few healthy items could market those, but not its overall brand. And they would extend to in-store promotions, clothing and video games.

"There are foods that companies could market to children," Wootan said. "It's just that companies currently aren't marketing these foods to children."

Food firms were quick to dismiss the proposal as extreme and unworkable. "Can you imagine being on the CSPI diet? No thank you," said Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents major food companies.

Rather than penalize marketers, Childs said, efforts to fight children' obesity should focus on teaching nutrition and health.

And she noted that food companies work to portray their products in the context in which they are meant to be consumed, with snacks and side dishes shown as such: "The products that we advertise can fit into a total diet."

The nation faces a serious problem with obesity, but children's obesity especially has skyrocketed — from between 5 percent and 6 percent during 1976-80, to over 15 percent in 1999-2000 for kids between 6 and 19, according to federal data.

Advertising under fire again
Throughout the 1990s, many cash-strapped school districts welcomed companies willing to pay for deals to market their snacks and drinks in vending machines and at school events. But a  backlash from parents and scrutiny from legislators scaled back the practice.

Now TV ads and other marketing efforts are back in the bull's-eye.

A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation last February estimated that kids now see 40,000 TV ads per year, twice as many as in the 1970s, with most for candy, cereal and fast food. By one estimate, $3 billion is spent annually on fast-food advertising alone.

"There is a tremendous amount of money and expertise behind figuring out how to get kids and their parents to buy these products whether they're good for kids or not," said Vicky Rideout, the foundation vice president who directed the study. "It's a huge industry."

Sales pitches have extended well beyond TV. Rideout noted colorful in-store displays that spur impulse buying; online sites created by snack companies filled with games and activities, such as Kidztown, a children' site sponsored by Hershey; and subtle placements of drinks and snacks in movies and TV shows.

"The child is in a whole product-placement world," Rideout said.

Magnifying the problem is the extra impact that advertising can have on children, who often take sales pitches at face value, said Marilyn Tanner, a pediatric dietician at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman.

"They believe what advertising is telling them," Tanner said. "They perceive it as real."

Tanner acknowledges that many parents and schools need to do a better job of educating children about how to eat healthy. At one of her after-school programs, she often asks how many of five recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables kids are eating: "I am lucky to get somebody who holds up two fingers."

'Parents are just outgunned'
Food companies already have some advertising oversight. The Children's Advertising Review Unit, or CARU, a self-regulatory body run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, sets basic marketing guidelines, though the CSPI notes it doesn't take into account food's nutritional value.

And manufacturers, Childs said, have their own self-imposed advertising principles, including a directive against "any direct appeal to children to persuade" adults to buy products for them and a promise not to advertise product tie-ins for TV shows during those programs.

Last fall, the Institute of Medicine released a report on childhood obesity that called for tougher standards from oversight groups like CARU and recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services convene a meeting to set national marketing standards for food and beverages aimed at children.

The department has not yet asked food makers for such a meeting, Childs said.

Wootan hopes changes can be made without regulation, but believes it is an uphill battle. "Parents are just outgunned by the food industry," she said. "I would love it if I could get Shrek to come to dinner and get my daughter to eat her vegetables."

She may get help. The Produce for Better Health Foundation and Wal-Mart paired up last fall on a "Shrek 2" campaign to promote fresh fruits and vegetables. Last summer, "Shrek 2" had a tie-in with Burger King.