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Behind the Shady World of Marketing Junk Food to Children

Marketers spend billions attracting kids to junk food they hope will become a lifelong brand attachment. But the effect on kids' health can be costly.

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If a food does not fall into that category, it must meet two other criteria. In short, it must contain enough healthy stuff and not too much unhealthy stuff in order to qualify. At the halfway point, they were still unsure how this would work. The first part requires that food marketed to children contain a certain amount of food within the government-recognized "healthy" food groups (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat free or low-fat milk, yogurt, extra-lean meat or poultry, eggs or nuts). The second part limits specific nutrients such as saturated fat, trans fat, sugars and sodium. This would ensure that a food like potato chips (which contains a considerable amount of potatoes, a vegetable) would not qualify if it contained high levels of saturated fat or sodium.

As of the December presentation, the government group working on the report still had a number of questions. For example, should they split their nutrition guidelines into two age tiers based on the different nutritional needs of teens (ages 12-17) and children (ages 2-11)? They were also unsure how to handle advertising of entire brands or restaurant chains that sold a broad range of food (perhaps some that meets the nutrition guidelines and some that does not). They also wondered how to adjust the traditional government recommendations for a 2000-calorie diet for children, since children eat less than adults and require fewer calories. Last, they feared that their standards would provide incentives for manufacturers to reformulate foods in ways that would qualify them to market to children without actually improving the foods' nutritional quality (for example, by replacing sugar with Splenda).

Even if they manage to come up with workable solutions to these questions, they're still left grappling with the most important questions: Can food marketing to kids ever be done in a benign way? Should McDonald's receive permission to market its apple slices and milk to children in order to lure them in the restaurant's door? Or should a company run ads for its reduced sugar or whole grain version of a product with an almost identical name to the less healthy version of the same product? And how can government nutrition standards account for portion size when they don't know if a food will be eaten as a meal or as a snack, or by a 2-year-old or an 11-year-old?

Even if a food is truly healthy, Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, says, "If a child [under age 8] cannot comprehend the ad's persuasive intent, it is immoral to advertise anything to that child." Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, adds that children should not learn to choose foods based on clever ads or packaging featuring their favorite cartoon characters. Instead, they should learn to select food that is tasty or healthy. Thus, even a box of fruit sold with a popular cartoon character on its packaging sends the wrong message.

Despite these obvious problems, the government still accepts marketing to children as a fact of life that won't change in the near future, and one of the speakers at the recent Federal Trade Commission forum actually thanked advertisers for sponsoring decades of quality children's television programming (as shows are supported by their advertising dollars, without which the shows can't exist). The group presenting at the forum made clear that they were not proposing regulations, only non-binding recommendations, and they strongly encouraged all businesses marketing to children to join the Council of Better Business Bureaus' self-regulatory initiative. In other words, even though the government has the clear authority to pass binding regulations to curb marketing to children, they plan to just politely request that companies refrain from marketing the worst junk to kids as they continue their love affair with self-regulation.

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