Food marketing and the childhood obesity problem

The Gunther Report

Food marketing and the childhood obesity problem

Imagine feeding your kids Cocoa Puffs for breakfast, Peter Pan crunchy peanut butter for lunch and a carnival corn dog and fries for dinner.

You wouldn’t feel great about that, would you?

Surely you wouldn’t consider it a healthy diet.

And most likely you wouldn’t be shocked if your kid got a little chubby.

Foods like these are among the many reasons why childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of obese children aged 6 to 11 increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008.

One of the truly sad facts about this great nation of ours is that about one-third of all children and adolescents are overweight or obese. It’s also a problem that will cost all of us, as government spending on health care continues to rise.

Of course, we all know that kids eat too much food that is prepared, sugary and fatty. They also don’t get out and move around enough. The problem of childhood obesity is complex and multifactoral. You can blame television, video games, fast food, bad parenting and so forth.

Until recently I’ve tended to let corporate America off the hook when it comes to obesity. (See, for example, my July 2011 blog post Mmm...mmm..who's to blame for obesity). Now I’m starting to think that big food companies are part of the problem, and not part of the solution. This is particularly true when it comes to marketing to children.

Processed food products branded as “healthy”

Because big food companies have decided that Cocoa Puffs, Peter Pan Peanut Butter and a “carnival corn dog” with fries qualify as “healthier or better-for-you foods,” they’ve been deemed suitable for advertising to kids.

Processed products familiar to many Americans -- such as Spaghetti-O’s with Meatballs (manufactured by Campbell’s), Goldfish White Sandwich Bread and Flavor Blasted Goldfish Xplosive Pizza (Pepperidge Farm), KC’s Primo Pepperoni Double Stuffed Crust Pizza and Chef Boyardee Overstuffed Beef Ravioli (ConAgra), Lucky Charms breakfast cereal (General Mills) and Frosted Flakes (Kellogg’s) -- are considered healthy by the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a coalition of 16 food companies operating under the auspices of the Better Business Bureau. They appear on the Initiative’s list of “healthier or better-for-you” foods, as well as among their list of “Food and Beverage Products that Meet Participants’ Approved Nutrition Standards that May Be in Child-Directed Advertising.”

Which makes me wonder: Better for you than what, for goodness sake? Stuffing your face with Doritos and ice cream instead of eating dinner?

I learned about the list on Thursday at the Atlantic Food Summit, an afternoon event in Washington organized by the magazine (one of my favorites) and hosted by the estimable food writer Corby Kummer. Speakers included Martha Stewart (boring), Mario Batali (laugh-out-loud funny and inspirational), Kathleen Merrigan of USDA and Kirsten Tobey of Revolution Foods, an impressive startup that I’ll return to another day.

What grabbed me was the conversation about childhood obesity, and in particular the role of food marketing. I’m a fan of crunchy peanut butter, but I don’t think it’s responsible for companies to advertise it on TV for kids.

Photo of cereal provided by Executioner via Wikimedia Commons.

“Parents don’t stand a chance against the food environment today,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I find myself feeding my daughter horrible stuff despite my best efforts.”

Jennifer Grossman, senior vice president of the Dole Nutrition Institute, which (surprise!) promotes the benefits of fruits and vegetables, said: “We do get sort of drowned out by all of the marketing of the unhealthy food that is out there.”

Coming to the defense of the industry was Elaine Kolish, director of the aforementioned Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. “Obesity is such a complex problem,” she sighed. Just the other day, she said, The Washington Post reported on a study saying that babies born by C-section may be more likely than those delivered vaginally to become obese. Of all the ads that children are seeing, she said, fewer than 25 percent are for food, and there’s no evidence that more ads lead to more obesity.

But if ads weren’t selling more Cocoa Puffs and carnival dogs, would consumers be spending millions of dollars to buy them?

When advocates of healthier food criticized companies like General Mills, Kellogg’s, Campbell’s and ConAgra for their very generous definition of “healthier and better for you,” the companies got defensive. Wootan said:  “It was embarrassing how the food industry reacted. Industry came and said this is what we’re doing. Take it or leave it.”

Of course, if kids got more active, they could eat more sugary and fatty foods without gaining weight. A standout voice on the panel belonged to Gary Hall Sr., who is executive director of the World Fit Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes exercise, mostly walking, in elementary schools. Hall is an impressive guy, and not just because he brought home Olympic medals from Mexico City (1968), Munich (1972) and Montreal (1976). A retired opthamologist, he now recruits fellow Olympians who visit schools to try to inspire students and combat childhood obesity.

“A little bit goes a long way with activity,” Hall said. “We just want to get the kids moving. Walking for 30 minutes. Simple.”

He delivered the most shocking statistics of the afternoon: “Two percent of high schools today have physical education. Three percent of elementary schools today have phys ed. It’s been abandoned, mostly for financial reasons.”

That’s dumb.

Nearly as dumb as calling Cocoa Puffs better for you.