Junk Food Armageddon: Feds May Impose Strict Nutrition Standards on Items Marketed to Kids

Last Updated Oct 20, 2010 10:06 PM EDT

For the past five years, the FTC has kept a watchful eye on the many sugary and highly processed products the food industry markets to kids. Now the agency appears poised to crack down -- and the food industry could face an ugly scenario should the proposed rules survive in final form.

A document created by an interagency working group (PDF link) consisting of officials from the FTC, the FDA, the CDC and the USDA lays out the federal government's current thinking on nutrition standards for foods that are marketed to kids aged 2-17.

And unlike some of the industry's previous attempts at self-generated health standards, the government's criteria are strict. No Froot Loopholes here. Products marketed to children would have to meet both a food standard, which means they have to have a certain amount of actual food in them, and a nutrient standard, which sets limits on how much bad stuff they can contain.

For the food industry, which has a fierce preference for setting its own guidelines, this is bad news, amounting to the sort of quasi-regulation its members have assiduously tried to avoid. The guidelines wouldn't actually be legally binding, since the FTC doesn't have authority to create these sorts of mandates, but food companies would be under enormous public pressure to follow them.

Here's how the standards are presented:

Food must contain one of more of the following per RACC (Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed Per Eating Occasion):

  • 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

Foods marketed to children must not contain more than the following amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and sodium.

  • Saturated Fat: 1 g or less per RACC and not more than 15% of calories
  • Trans Fat: 0 g per RACC (<0.5 g)
  • Sugar: No more than 13 g of added sugars per RACC
  • Sodium: No more than 200 mg per portion

The problem for food manufacturers like Kraft (KFT), General Mills (GIS) and Kellogg (K) is that under these criteria, the current versions of lunchbox staples like Lunchables and Pop-Tarts couldn't be marketed to kids 2-17. Also not making the cut are most sugary kids' breakfast cereals -- not because of the sugar, but because they don't have enough whole grain or other real foods.

So what's the status of these standards? Nobody knows. They were presented at an FTC forum on food marketing and childhood obesity in December 2009 and were supposed to be finalized by February or March. Both the FTC and the FDA have reportedly signed off on them, but the USDA has not, leading some watchdog groups to speculate that the food industry has unleashed a lobbying effort aimed at its friends in the Agriculture Department.

It's also unclear how broadly the standards would be applied. Is the FTC looking at marketing in all its scattered forms, including Web sites, product packaging and on-site promotions? And would they include restaurants like McDonald's, which has come under fire recently for the practice of putting toys in Happy Meals?

Since this marks the first time the government has ever devised such specific standards for what constitutes healthy food, it's no shock that the effort would come under a storm of politics and lobbying. So don't be surprised that when -- or if -- kids' nutrition standards are ever released, they don't exactly look like what you see above.

Image by Flickr user Scorpions and Centaurs

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  • Melanie Warner

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