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Pulling the Plug on Marketing Junk Food to Kids

When asked by my young son, I simply say something to the effect of, “The reason they put cute little cartoon characters on that box is because the product is made of garbage and they know no one would buy it otherwise.” Somehow he accepts this, and makes it a game by pointing out the ubiquitous cartoon characters on everything from cans of pasta to toilet paper. But I have it relatively easy, as most children, who are all aggressively and ceaselessly marketed to, have to run a gauntlet of movie tie-ins, leprechauns, and unicorns all vying for their market share. Most parents cave in to their children’s desires for these sweet, fatty, and salty food stuffs, and most children pack it away and roll headlong into a life of indulgence and health problems.


What may be your last look at some of the more egregious junk food ads aimed at children.

This past week, the rumor mill was churning concerning the issue of marketing junk food (or unhealthy foods) directly to children. An interagency document between the FTC, FDA, CDC and USDA revealed new proposed nutritional standards for food marketed to children 17 and under. In essence, foods that did not reach a certain nutritional criteria, or exceeded certain fat, sugar, and salt quotas, would be relegated to the commercial outlands and could not be marketed to children.

Here is a brief rundown of some of the proposed standards (to see the full report, you could download the PDF here):
Foods marketed to children must provide a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet.

Option A:
Food must contain at least 50% by weight of one or more of the following: fruit; vegetable; whole grain; fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt; fish; extra lean meat or poultry; eggs; nuts and seeds; or beans.

Option B:
Food must contain one or more of the following per RACC:
0.5 cups fruit or fruit juice
0.6 cups vegetables or vegetable juice
0.75 oz. equivalent of 100% whole grain
0.75 cups milk or yogurt; 1 oz. natural cheese; 1.5 oz.
processed cheese
1.4 oz. meat equivalent of fish or extra lean meat or
poultry
0.3 cups cooked dry beans
0.7 oz. nuts or seeds
1 egg or egg equivalent

Basically, any products openly and blatantly marketed to children will, under these new regulations, would have to meet both a stringent food standard, which essentially means that would have to contain real and relatively nutritious food, and a general nutrition standard, which defines how much garbage a product can acceptably contain.

Now the authenticity and veracity of this leaked proposal are somewhat in question, but what is indisputable is the contemporary movement to make both junk food producers and government regulating bodies more accountable for their actions (or inactions in this case). There was a recent backlash against McDonald’s and their longstanding and hugely successful Happy Meal campaign (Santa Clara county in California recently banned all Happy Meals) and various parent groups around the country have successfully lobbied to remove all soft drinks and junk food from schools and playgrounds. But as we have seen with all manner of marketing, children are psychologically susceptible to targeted marketing, and by allowing companies to trot out the ADHD tiger on a skateboard to peddle highly addictive salty snacks (over and over again) it undermines the development of good health and good health habits. Sure, parents are ultimately responsible for what their children do and do not eat, but remember, parents don’t have cute cartoon characters advocating their more conservative and nutritious agendas. It becomes a battle of who has the most flash and bling, and most often the parents (and ultimately their children) who lose out to the undeniable appeal of sensationalism.

What is your feeling? Should the government answer to parents and critics concerns by making these proposed standards real, or should parents just step up their anti-junk food campaign and take care of their own without government interference? Would standards like this even work, or would junk food always have sway over our children? Where do you position yourself in the battle of the hearts and minds (and stomachs) of your children?

Read more: Children, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Family, Food, Healthy Schools, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

122 comments

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12:17PM PST on Mar 12, 2011

I wish we could get some of this awful stuff off the market!

10:58AM PST on Mar 9, 2011

I thought marketing to minors was illegal in the US...

11:18AM PST on Dec 1, 2010

Thanks!

4:05PM PST on Nov 28, 2010

Thank you!

8:18AM PDT on Sep 10, 2010

thanks

7:59PM PDT on Sep 2, 2010

Ya personally candy should be illigal since 90% of it have animal products, I feel that anything that has the remains of animals is well...I think you know where I am going with this

7:29AM PDT on Aug 29, 2010

ouch............mistake, should read ....not so with me.....ahh, you see Jim, happens to the best, lol.

7:07AM PDT on Aug 29, 2010

Jim - my 3-y-o is my 3-y- grand daughter! She has a mind of her own and because parents tend to give in rather than insist on things being done the way they intended it to be done, she learns quickly to find excuses why she cannot carry out the command, not so with my as her gma though. Still, I like a challenge and she is a brilliant challenge. It shows me that at her age she is thinking and evaluating.
Jim - no need to excuse the spelling mistakes, we all do them. Although I type 10 finger system and watch the screen rather than the keyboard, I can follow my typing mistakes easier and correct them.

6:18AM PDT on Aug 29, 2010

Hello Jim,

I think you are mixing me up with Ingrid, Jim. My daughter is 8, Ingrid's is 3.

You might be right about how dumbed down the population in the US has become. I am not in a position to judge the truth in this statement.

2:46AM PDT on Aug 29, 2010

I had to shake my head after reading my post! I should be criticizing other's spelling and grammar, right? I'm honestly better than that. When I write these things I bang them out, copy and paste to Word, and do my editing from there. Because I tend to go off on tangents I keep each revision as I go along. The final version gets copied and pasted into the comment and I post it. I sometimes lose track of what I copied last and the embarassing stuff gets posted. I scan it rather than proofing it like I should. That's obvious of course!

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