Have you ever sat down and watched a half hour of children’s programming? How many ads do you see marketed specifically towards children? Between Ronald McDonald, the Keebler Elves, Captain Crunch and Tony the Tiger, there is no shortage of cartoon mascots tantalizing our children with visions of sugary and colorful delights.

According to a newly formed inter-agency Working Group (FTC, FDA, CDC, USDA), the food industry spends more than $1.6 BILLION each year to promote junk foods to our kids (foods high in calories, low in nutrition). They find every possible way to reach your kids using TV, the internet, video games, social media, movies, and even marketing in schools. Here is a shocking statistic:

Cookies and cakes, pizza, and soda/energy/sports drinks are the top sources of calories in the diets of children 2 through 18. Chips and french fries comprise half of all the vegetables kids eat.

Since when are french fries and chips vegetables? It’s no wonder that one in three children will be overweight or obese putting them at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and other diseases.

Yesterday, this Working Group released a set of proposed principles for the food industry to use when marketing food to children. The proposal is designed to “encourage children, through advertising and marketing, to choose foods that make a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet; and contain limited amounts of nutrients that have a negative impact on health or weight…”

Overview of the Proposal:

The basic premise is our government is trying to get the food industry to market healthy foods to kids instead of junk food.

  • Applies to children ages 2-11 and adolescents 12-17
  • Defines what  “food marketing targeted to children” means
  • Sets separate guidelines for individual foods, main dishes and meals.
  • Gives the food industry 5 years to be in compliance with guidelines (by 2016)
  • Individual foods marketed to children must have at least one of the following (main dishes must contain two of the above and meals must contain three or more):
    • Fruit or vegetable
    • Whole grain
    • Fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk products
    • Fish, extra lean meat or poultry
    • Eggs
    • Nuts or seeds
    • Beans
  • Individual foods marketed to children should not contain more than:
    • Saturated fat – 1g
    • Trans fats – 0g
    • Added sugars – 13g
    • Sodium – 210mg (and further reduce to 140mg by 2021)
    • Note – these apply to “reference amount customarily consumed” per eating occasion which is not necessarily the same as the serving size on the label.
  • Looking to the food industry to reformulate the foods most heavily marketed to children including:
    • breakfast cereals
    • snack foods
    • candy
    • dairy products
    • baked goods
    • carbonated beverages, fruit juice, and non-carbonated beverages
    • prepared foods and meals
    • frozen and chilled deserts
    • restaurant foods
  • Is voluntary. While this may sound weak, it is likely food companies will face tremendous pressure to adhere to the guidelines, making it more of a demand versus a request.
  • Foods that do not meet the proposed criterion, would not be permitted to be advertised to kids
  • The FTC has posted a request for comments on the proposed principles to its website. There will be a 45 day period to comment and a forum meeting before a final recommendation is submitted to Congress.

It is interesting how our government has chosen to address the marketing of foods instead of the foods themselves. I suppose it is a roundabout way of reducing the amount of junk food kids are exposed to. The fact that specific ingredients are not included in this guideline is disappointing. Wouldn’t it be great if just once, we looked at preservatives and artificial food colorants as equally potentially harmful as added sugar and white flour? While certainly not perfect, this proposal is a step in the right direction. Junk food ads blanket every corner of our country and implant images in our minds. While I’m sure there will still be plenty of what-I-would-consider-junk-food ads after guidelines are followed, I do believe it might be a little better than it is today. After all, do you think Twinkie is going to put out a “whole-grain” option?


Federal Trade Commission Press Release

Image: Renata Osińska