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.”