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Any parent who goes grocery shopping with young children in tow will tell you it can be quite a challenge, enduring endless battles over fat- and sugar-laden food products adorned with the latest Disney movie character. But what used to be mainly a private matter has now become a full-blown public debate over the role the food industry plays in children’s health.
Major food companies and fast food chains are coming under increasing public scrutiny in the wake of a growing childhood obesity epidemic. Not taking the finger-pointing lying down, Big Food has set its PR machine into overdrive; companies are tripping over each other trying to position themselves as caring about children's’ health.
But national experts and grassroots activists alike are skeptical. Behind the mainstream media hype, they say, is a trail of deception, lobbying and utter hypocrisy.
The New Greenwashing
To demonstrate its commitment to children, McDonald’s has introduced “Happy Meal Choices” so that parents can replace high-fat French fries with “Apple Dippers” (sliced apples and caramel dipping sauce); and instead of a Coke, kids can now have apple juice or milk. There is, however, no substitute for the hamburger, cheeseburger or Chicken McNuggets.
In addition to promoting its food as nutritious, the fast food giant is also attempting to deflect attention from its unhealthy products by promoting physical activity as the “real” answer to the obesity problem. In January, McDonald’s announced that it was sending its mascot, Ronald McDonald, into elementary schools to promote fitness among children. Dubbed the company’s new “chief happiness officer,” Ronald has become an “ambassador for an active, balanced lifestyle,” McDonald’s Chief Creative Officer Marlena Peleo-Lazar told a government panel studying food advertising.
Nutritionist Melinda Hemmelgarn, a food and society policy fellow with the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute in Missouri, is unimpressed. “Their goal in going into schools is, in a word, branding. If Ronald was truly an ambassador of health, he would promote organic, sustainably-produced foods, preferably from local producers to support local economies and protect the environment,” she says.
Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard’s Judge Baker Children’s Center and author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, agrees that McDonald’s has no place in school. “This is just another marketing ploy. The notion that children need Ronald McDonald to get them to enjoy exercise is bogus. Given the opportunity, kids naturally like to be active,” she says.
Another company seeking to teach children about exercise is PepsiCo, the world’s fifth-largest food and beverage company. Last fall, PepsiCo reached 3 million students by sending educational materials on fitness to elementary schools. In March, the company targeted all 15,000 middle schools in the United States with its get-fit message. Ironically, PepsiCo already has a strong marketing presence in public schools. Exclusive contracting with school districts allows the company to sell highly sweetened beverages and Frito-Lay-branded junk food, much to the dismay of nutrition advocates.
To deflect critics, PepsiCo has created a Web site (www.healthispower.net) devoted to making the case that it cares about children’s health. The site claims that “kid-friendly” school snacks such as Doritos and Pepsi are “part of a balanced diet.”
“If companies like McDonald’s and Pepsi really cared about children’s health, they would stop hawking their wares in schools,” says Linn.
The food and beverage giant also recently introduced the “Smart Spot” symbol, a small green circle with the message, “Smart Choices Made Easy” that appears on such “healthy products” as Diet Pepsi, Gatorade and Baked Lays. But labeling a food healthy does not make it so. Hemmelgarn thinks the labels can be misleading. “Gatorade is simply sugar and water; it’s not a healthy product,” she says. Gatorade is often marketed in schools as a healthy alternative to soda.
Nutrition consultant Fern Gale Estrow is concerned about the more insidious nature of the Smart Spot. She says it’s a way of marketing to kids because children respond to symbols. She also notes that the Smart Spot symbol contains a check mark that looks very similar to the VeriSign — the symbol that means certain Internet sites are secure. “That’s a positive message. A check-mark means something is ok; so I have real concerns about the marketing and media messaging,” she says.
Another company jumping on the “good for you” bandwagon is General Mills. A leader in children’s cereals with annual sales of more than $1 billion, the corporation markets products in more than 100 countries. In January, General Mills reformulated its cereals sold in the United States to contain whole grains, the company says, in response to the federal government’s recommendations to eat more whole grains.
But what about all those high-sugar cereals aimed at kids? Marybeth Thorsgaard, a Genera l Mills spokesperson, says, “Even with pre-sweetened cereals, there really is no better breakfast your child could eat in the morning. Pre-sweetened cereals account for less than 5 percent of your sugar for the entire day, but because it’s fortified and nutritionally dense for the amount of calories, there really is no better breakfast that your child could eat.”
Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University and author of Food Politics, has heard this argument before. “It’s hard not to react sarcastically to such statements from cereal makers. I have heard them say the reason sugary cereals are good for kids is because of the milk that’s added. That, I suppose, would also be the rationale for giving kids cookies for breakfast. This is a marketing ploy to make people think that whole grain Cocoa Puffs are healthy. Sugar is still the first ingredient,” she says.
Estrow is also skeptical about the General Mills move and is concerned that parents might be duped by the new labels. “The level of confusion in nutrition is already massive. Now we have whole grain Lucky Charms. I think it’s totally bogus. The dietary guidelines were changed to make a stronger statement about fiber, and this product has less than one gram of fiber per serving. That’s just not sufficient,” she says.
Nutrition experts say that these health claims boil down to nothing more than marketing gimmicks. Melinda Hemmelgarn says the goal is not to actually promote health, but rather simply “to increase sales by health-conscious parents.”
Marion Nestle is more blunt: “Food companies are desperate for sales and growth and if they can use ‘health’ to sell junk food, they will,” she says.
Fighting for the Right to Advertise
The issue of excessive food marketing to kids is fast becoming a hotly debated topic. Many experts, including nutritionist Hemmelgarn, think that marketing to children under age eight is unethical because young children don’t have the critical thinking skills to evaluate media messages.
In January, the Institutes of Medicine (IOM, a Congressionally chartered independent advisory body to the federal government) hosted a “Workshop on Marketing Strategies that Foster Healthy Food and Beverage Choices in Children and Youth.” Featured speakers included executives from Kraft, PepsiCo and McDonald’s, as well as television and advertising representatives. Health advocates had almost no representation.
In its remarks, the mega food conglomerate Kraft Foods (owned by Altria, the company formerly known as Philip Morris) was especially eager to portray itself as doing right by children. Lance Freidmann, senior vice president of global health and wellness, promised that Kraft’s R&D team was “hard at work creating new products for kids” that meet the company’s self-defined healthy criteria. He also stressed the importance of self-regulation, concluding that industry and government should develop “responsible self-regulatory practices for marketing to kids while permitting companies to compete vigorously in the growing market for healthier foods.”
Also in January, Kraft promised to scale back junk food ads to children, a move that earned the company much free positive media. But the potential impact of Kraft’s promises isn’t entirely clear. For example, only certain products, including regular Kool-Aid, Oreo cookies, several Post children’s cereals and some varieties of Lunchables will no longer be advertised to children under age 11. However, according to a press release, “products that the company will continue to advertise in media aimed specifically at the 6-11 age group include: Sugar-Free Kool-Aid, Half the Sugar Fruity Pebbles cereal, and Chicken Dunks Lunchables Fun Pack.” Why are these products fair game? Kraft claims that they offer ‘beneficial nutrients or a functional benefit.’”
Less than two weeks later, Kraft turned right around to join with other major food companies and ad agencies to create a new lobbying group, the Alliance for American Advertising. Together, Kraft and fellow members General Mills (which refused to comment on its involvement for this story) and Kellogg comprise the top three advertisers of packaged food to kids. Their combined annual spending on kids’ ads is close to $380 million in the United States alone. Other alliance founders include the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Grocery Manufacturers of America, two powerful trade associations in their own right. The alliance’s stated purpose is to defend the industry’s purported First Amendment rights to advertise to children and to promote self-regulation as an alternative to government restrictions.
Susan Linn is appalled at this marketing campaign to defend the right to advertise. “Food companies and the advertising industry should be thinking about their responsibilities to children, not about their ‘right’ to exploit them. Whether we rely on research or common sense, we know that children are more vulnerable to marketing than adults and that they should be protected because of their vulnerabilities,” she says.
Public health advocates are increasingly insisting that parents have the right to raise their children without being undermined by corporate marketers; and that the government should restrict commercial access to children.
Those sentiments were expressed in a public statement signed by dozens of leading educators and health advocates, and organized by a public health coalition with which Linn works called the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, stating that children have the right to grow up in a safe and healthy environment.
This health perspective is beginning to make inroads in the corridors of power. In March, Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced plans to introduce a bill to give the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the authority to regulate advertising to children. Congress stripped the agency of the authority to regulate unfair advertising to kids in 1980, when the commission was on the verge of restraining ads targeting children. As a result, the commission now has greater authority over advertising aimed at adults than at children.
At a press conference surrounded by toys used to promote junk food to kids, Harkin criticized the food industry for contributing to childhood obesity by spending as much as $15 billion last year on marketing to children. Harkin singled out General Mills’ Shrek cereal as being particularly egregious. The product consists of sweetened corn puffs with marshmallow pieces and contains 14 grams of sugar per serving. “Kids just see that it’s Shrek,” Harkin said.
Also in March, the chair of the FTC, Deborah Majoras, announced a workshop to be held this summer on food marketing to children. In the same breath, she also asserted that the agency did not intend to regulate industry. “Let me make this clear, this is not the first step toward new government regulations to ban or restrict children’s food advertising and marketing. The FTC tried that approach in the 1970s and it failed,” Majoras said at a Consumer Federation of America conference.
The food industry relies on a self-regulatory body called the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) to police its advertising policies.
“We support CARU, a self-regulatory mechanism that reviews all ads directed to children and ensures that they are appropriate for them and takes into account where children are developmentally,” says Stephanie Childs, a spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade association whose 140 members enjoy annual sales of more than $500 billion in the United States alone, and consists of major food corporations such as Kraft, Nestle and PepsiCo.
She also asserts that “CARU has not hesitated once to let companies know when they think an ad is inappropriate and if the company does not make changes, CARU takes the complaint directly to the FTC.” She is unable to point to any examples of CARU doing so, however.
Many experts question CARU’s effectiveness. Attorney Ellen Fried teaches food law at New York University and has filed complaints with CARU to challenge food industry ads. “As with all self-regulatory bodies, CARU is hampered by its being a creature of, and supported by, industry.” She adds that few people even know CARU exists. “Most of their activity is self-initiated because consumers — as opposed to industry competitors — don’t even know where, or to whom, to complain.”
Senator Harkin says that self-regulation has been a complete failure. “The current industry efforts are woefully inadequate,” he says.
“I sincerely hope that the industry will develop tough and effective marketing guidelines, but when private interests work against the public good like this, government is obliged to act.”
Michele Simon, a public health attorney who teaches health policy at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, directs the Center for Informed Food Choices and is currently writing a book about food industry lobbying.