Academic experts from across the nation are calling on President Obama to ensure that his administration establishes guidelines on marketing food to children.

In a letter to the President Tuesday, more than 75 researchers in the fields of nutrition, marketing, medicine and public health asked that the Obama administration finalize its proposed guidelines on nutritional standards and marketing definitions for food marketed to children. 

A draft version of these recommendations was released in April by the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children, a coalition of officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The guidelines would set limits on the amount of sodium, added sugars and unhealthy fats in foods advertised to children, and would set minimums for foods that supply healthy nutrients, including whole-grain-based ingredients, fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk products, extra lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds and beans.

The standards are voluntary, and are intended as a tool for industry self-regulation.

Companies currently spend approximately $2 billion a year on advertising for foods marketed to kids. In 2009, 86 percent of those foods were high in calories, saturated fat, sugar or sodium. While that number was down from 94 percent in 2003, after the industry implemented its own self-regulatory program, unhealthy marketing is not decreasing quickly enough, say the letter’s authors.

“At this rate, children will not fully be protected from unhealthy food ads until 2033,” they say.
And putting a cap on junk food marketing is essential, these academics say, because it “plays a key role” in contributing to the country’s high rate of childhood obesity. An estimated 1 in 3 children are now either overweight or obese. 

The suggested nutrition principles have been met with criticism by many food producers, who claim that the recommendations violate companies’ rights to free speech under the First Amendment.

However, in a letter to the IWG Sept. 6, a group of 36 law professors explained that because the rules are not mandatory, they do not violate freedom of speech as guaranteed by the Constitution.

“It would be a real setback for children’s health if the Administration backed down on strong guidelines for food marketing to children, especially given the transparently specious arguments of junk-food advertisers,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), on Tuesday.

The letter to the President also offers recommendations to the industry for strengthening its own self-regulatory program, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).
Requiring that healthy ingredients be present in a food, as the CFBAI does, does not assure that that food is nutritious, say the signatories.

“Low-nutrition foods can meet the CFBAI standards if companies fortify them with small amounts of nutrients, including nutrients that are not lacking in children’s diets,” they say.

“An essential step toward helping companies address the key weaknesses in the current self-regulatory approach is for the IWG to finalize and release a clear set of marketing guidelines.”

  • MAC

    “An estimated 1 in 3 children are now either overweight or obese.” Are children really buying this stuff or are their parents? At the end of the day, it has to come from the parents or the regs are useless. I tell my children that those ads are designed to make them want to buy whatever item is being hawked (candy, fast food, or toy). We talk about nutrition and eating balanced meals. My parents never did that. News flash, if your child is a brat or fat, watches too much TV or has any other bad habit, it’s like the Oompa-Loompahs say, “…who’s to blame? The mother and the father.” The change needs to come from the parents.

  • JDG

    “At this rate, children will not fully be protected from unhealthy food ads until 2033….”
    Seriously? Food ads are not some dangerous virus or a street gang waiting to ambush. What does it mean to be fully protected from food ads? Protected from what? There are far too many busy-bodies with too much time on their hands.
    I viewed unhealthy food ads growing up and I’m not overweight. Neither are my siblings, my parents, my grandparents, cousins, etc. I travel 50% of the time for work and I have no problem avoiding the drive-thru at fast food restaurants. Make your own food decisions. There are much more important issues which should have our immediate concern and attention then some over-hyped food marketing scare.

  • MBW

    Great example of the tyranny of the minority; because they wrap their message in the health and safety of children, how could anyone be against that?
    We teach our children not to run with scissors, we don’t demand the removal of scissors from the world.

  • Michael Bulger

    Food decisions are based on a myriad of environmental factors. Children are particularly susceptible to one of those factors: advertising. Simply blaming the parents ignores the fact that children now have higher amounts of spending money than in previous generations and often make food decisions without supervision. This is in addition to the fact that today’s parents feel especially pressured with time constraints and often do not devote energy to convincing a child in the midst of a tantrum or groveling episode that the cartoony character-laden package is not an appropriate choice. The food companies have a set of responsibilities, as well. These guidelines would be a step in the right decision and the socially responsible thing to adopt at this point in history.

  • Steve

    If this was just a simple matter of consumer choice/buyer beware — yeah, then let’s just “Live Free or Die” (to quote NH license plates).
    But what we’re seeing here is the result of millions of dollars of corporate studies and huge annual directed marketing advertising budgets that have placed a target squarely on the backs of little kids — to hook them early so they’ll keep buying favorite brands and train them to be good little consumers throughout adulthood. All for profits, profits, profits…
    The fact is that fully over 1/3 of our US population already is obese — and climbing — and the concomitant health costs are everybody’s business. Not that it dismays the sickness/drug industry much — more profits, profits, profits…

  • MAC

    Michael & Steve, you are both right, there is a huge fortune spent on marketing to children. Your argument is logical, it is just philosophicaly not in line with mine. I think there are limits to what the government should be able to do, as well as what it is able to do.
    I am well aware of tantrums. I have left an entir cart of groceries in the store because my child felt the need to throw themselves to the ground. We left, I went home, I disciplined, they never did that again.
    My children have bank accounts. They are permitted to buy the occasional treat, but they aren’t walking unattended to the local gas station to indulge in junk food. (Like I did when I was a kid. Yes, I am obese. Yes, I was up to 300#. Yes, after 13 years of working on it I have come back down to a H.S. weight of 240 and plan on keeping on.)
    While we walk through the store, we talk about where the food comes from (I avoid China – when the kids are offered candy I have been told they ask if it came from China and decline it if it is.), comparing price by units (being economical), and why we want to buy things (Are we being swayed by good advertising?). I constantly hammer home the issue of advertising and picking nutritious foods while acknowledging it’s okay to have the occasional chocolate bar or snack chip.
    They don’t get Happy Meals or something in a “cartoony character-laden package”. But, again, I feel my job as a parent is too important to take the easy way out and coddle or give in to childish, irrational displays. I’m the adult and the one who is ultimately responsible, not my government.
    So I concede the argument, yes, you are right; in addition to the gobs of money being spent to brainwash our kids, there are a lot of weak willed parents who don’t do their jobs.
    P.S. We have one TV and they get a limit of 2 hours a day. If they aren’t exposed to the advertising propaganda, they can’t get brainwashed by it.