Mead Johnson Finds There Are Limits to Nutritionally Reckless Marketing, After All

Last Updated Jun 10, 2010 3:50 PM EDT

In a world where there are Chocolate Cheerios, Froot Loops with fiber and Pop-Tarts proclaiming they are "made with real fruit," it's hard to image that food companies could actually commit an unforgivable sin when it comes to the marketing of sugary, less-than-healthy foods. But Mead Johnson's (MJN) decision to stop selling its heavily-criticized chocolate-flavored toddler formula reveals that there is, in fact, a line that is not to be crossed.

When it was launched only back in February, chocolate Enfagrow, which is designed for kids aged 1 to 3 years and has 19 grams of sugar per 6-ounce serving, was lampooned by mom bloggers and prominent nutritionists as a product that would get kids hooked on sugary beverages at any early age, putting them on fast track to obesity. "Worried your 18-month-old might not be getting enough chocolate?" asked Mother Jones. "What's next, genetically modify moms to produce chocolate breast milk?" sneered New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle.

Mead Johnson's error lies in the faulty assumption that children are the same thing as toddlers. The bounty of sugary drinks and foods (chocolate and otherwise) that's aimed at kids is largely tolerated by consumers. But for somebody who can't yet talk or go to the bathroom on their own, there's a different set of rules. And the rules are this -- don't screw up their lives by getting them addicted to sugar and chocolate.

Mead Johnson, which is among the three big global companies making infant formula and toddler milk, marketed the drink as a solution for picky toddler eaters who refuse to drink milk or eat much of anything of nutritional value. The company, which has gotten into hot water over its aggressive marketing more than a few times before, explained that it was nixing the chocolate formula because "the resulting debate has distracted attention from the overall benefits of the brand."

The other mistake Mead Johnson made was choosing chocolate, which is a nutritional no-no, at least when it comes to the chocolate that kids eat. We know this because the company is not pulling its vanilla flavored formula, which has similar levels of sugar and was launched at the same time. If Mead Johnson had opted to introduce vanilla and strawberry flavored drinks, the uproar would likely have been minimal.

On her blog, Marion Nestle gives Mead Johnson no points for pulling the chocolate variety because, as she points out, the vanilla version has a mere one gram of sugar less per serving, which hardly makes it any more nutritionally worthy. Image by Mead Johnson