New proposed standards on food marketing to children

Finally! The government yesterday released a long-overdue report on food marketing to children that is likely to impact food and beverage companies, but could also affect a wide range of advertising, media, and other entertainment companies.

Finally! The government yesterday released a long-overdue report on food marketing to children that is likely to impact food and beverage companies, but could also affect a wide range of advertising, media, and other entertainment companies. That's because if their audiences include those age 17 and under—think hit shows like American Idol and popular websites--they will likely need to pay close attention to the nutritional quality of the products that advertise with them.

First a little history. The children's food and beverage market is a big one. A 2008 Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report found that 44 major food and beverage marketers spent $1.6 billion in 2006 to promote their products to children and teens. (Last year, the FTC subpoenaed 48 companies to do an update.)

Since 2006, the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, an effort of the Better Business Bureau, also has been working to encourage healthier dietary choices and lifestyles. Seventeen major food companies are now members of the initiative. They have pledged to devote 100 percent of their child-directed ads to “better for you” foods and to take other steps to help improve marketing to children.

In 2009, Congress directed four federal agencies—the FTC, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Promotion, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture--to study how food and drinks are marketed to children. The goal? Develop recommendations for standards for food and beverages sold to kids when these products represent a significant part of their diets—and thus, could affect childhood obesity rates.

Here's what the Working Group recommended yesterday:

Each food or beverage marketed to those 17 and younger should meet two guiding principles. One, it needs to meet Principle A, which means it must contain a serving of either fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or one percent dairy products, fish, extra lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts/seeds or beans. Two, products must all meet the Principle B list, which means they must be low in added sugar (less than 12 grams per recommended amount customarily consumed—yes, a pretty technical definition); sodium (less than 210 milligrams), have zero trans fat and contain less than one percent saturated fat.  

So how will that work out in products? A half cup of juice makes the cut. So do small fries and a seven-ounce fruit and yogurt parfait. But a cheeseburger probably won't qualify, a burger may not either, and neither may some very sugary cereals. As for most cookies…well, let's not even go there…

Sally Squires is SVP and director of health and wellness communications at Powell Tate, the Washington D.C. division of Weber Shandwick.

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