In a report released Tuesday, the Institute of Medicine said television advertising strongly influences what children under 12 eat.
The report said the food industry should spend its marketing dollars on nutritious food and drinks. That means SpongeBob, the popular animated star of the Nickelodeon cable TV network, and other characters should endorse only good-for-you food, the panel concluded.
"The foods advertised are predominantly high in calories and low in nutrition, the sort of diet that puts children's long-term health at risk," said J. Michael McGinnis, a senior scholar at the institute and chairman of the report committee.
The report said evidence is limited on whether TV advertising leads to obesity in children. A study hasn't been done that would demonstrate a direct cause and effect.
Still, the panel found the evidence compelling enough to call for a concerted effort to change the nature of foods being marketed to children, said panel member Ellen A. Wartella, psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside.
The growth in new food products targeted to kids has been huge, from 52 introduced in 1994 to nearly 500 introduced last year, the report said.
"Overwhelmingly, those foods are high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, not the kind of foods that are recommended for children to eat," Wartella said.
The findings were no surprise to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who requested the report.
"We like to think that SpongeBob SquarePants and Shrek and the pretty little princesses are likable, kid-friendly characters, but they're being used to manipulate vulnerable children to make unhealthy choices," said Harkin, the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.
"The industry must stop pushing junk food on our kids," Harkin said.
Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon in October announced a campaign aimed at persuading kids to eat healthy foods and to get up off the couch and move. The campaign features former President Clinton, SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer.
Among children and adolescents from ages 6 through 19, obesity rates have tripled over the past 40 years. Obesity increases the risks of type 2 diabetes and many other diseases and health conditions.