At a public meeting in Washington on Tuesday, the food and advertising industries opted not to fight to change or water down the government's new voluntary guidelines on food marketing to kids. Instead, they advocated for killing them off entirely, arguing for more study and starting over from scratch.
Why? Because the proposed rules are so good (from a health standpoint, anyway) that food manufacturers can't easily reformulate their products in order to make them OK to pitch at kids. The FTC, which is spearheading the crackdown, doesn't want to admit this, but the guidelines are actually a blueprint for a world where most highly processed fare isn't marketed to kids at all.
Bye-bye, Chef Boyardee
As it stands now, very few products would be considered healthy enough to be hawked to kids aged 2-17. Not Capri Sun, not Lunchables, not Happy Meals, not Chef Boyardee. And goodbye Cap'n Crunch and Tony the Tiger.
Even though the guidelines are voluntary -- in part because the FTC lacks the legal authority to forcibly regulate the nutritional quality of products -- food companies and advertising firms say they would feel great pressure to follow them. "This is a classic case of backdoor regulation," Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers told the WaPo.
The government says it believes the magic answer to industry discontent is still reformulation. "We don't want them to just quit marketing to children, but to lower the sugar content or include more whole grains and then market these better options to children," said Michelle Rusk, an attorney at the FTC.
But here's the problem. In order to comply with the new rules, manufacturers have to clear two towering hurdles. They have to limit the amount of bad stuff in their products -- added sugars, sodium, saturated fat and trans fat -- AND they have to include lots of real, whole foods -- from not one, but two of the following categories:
- whole grain
- fat-free or low-fat milk products
- fish, extra lean meat or poultry
- nuts and seeds
This is asking a lot. The idea that processed food manufacturers will be able to pull this off for anything more than just a small handful of their products is sheer wishful thinking. The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, which also consists of the FDA, USDA, and the CDC, appears to be laboring under a misunderstanding of what tasty, kid-centric processed food is.
Most packaged food and fast food needs sizeable doses of sugar, salt and fat to make it palatable. And guess what -- it's highly processed. In other words, fruit chews and Nesquik are not whole foods.
So here's a crazy idea. If we want kids to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, eggs, nuts, etc., then maybe they should just eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. But how do we get them to do this? If we stop marketing junk food to them, will their diets shift more to whole foods?
Scott Faber, vice president of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, says there's no scientific evidence demonstrating that removing toucans and tigers from cereal boxes will reduce childhood obesity or improve eating habits. And he's right, but how would you even study such a thing, anyway? Find people who don't know who the Keebler elves are? Suspend all kids' marketing for one year and see what happens?
It may be that, in the end, Froot Loops and Kool-Aid aren't ever going to be healthy enough to be marketed to kids under a rigorous, high-bar standard. And if the government was honest with us -- and if the Obama administration didn't care about being politically assaulted as First Amendment-hating Communists -- officials would be calling for a dramatic reduction of kid-targeted processed food marketing, not pretending that all we need is for food scientists to spend a few more hours in the lab.
Image by from ThisisChris.com