FTC nudges food industry on marketing to kids

The Federal Trade Commission last Thursday announced a proposed set of “principles" regarding the marketing of food to kids that it hopes the food industry will voluntarily adopt.

Under direction from Congress, the FTC, together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the USDA and the FDA, established a working group to devise principles aimed at promoting more-healthful eating among kids ages 2 to 17. The goal, of course, is to make a dent in the obesity epidemic that has one in every three U.S. kids overweight or obese.

Children, the argument goes, are exposed to so many alluring ads and other promotions (on Web sites, Facebook and other media, for instance) for fast food and unhealthful snacks that parents trying to encourage healthful eating fight an uphill, if not impossible, battle.

In short, the principles suggest that food manufacturers and marketers harness their creativity (and their ad budgets) to provide and steer children toward foods that have some nutritional value. Those include fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat
milk products, fish, extra lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds, and beans. At the same time, the industry is asked to consider cutting back on promotion of foods containing lots of saturated fats, trans fats, sugar and sodium.

The principles, which are now open to public comment before being finalized, do not constitute government regulation, the FTC insists. They're just suggestions that the working group hopes the food industry will find room in its heart to embrace.

The news release announcing the principles' release notes that a number of food companies have already, and voluntarily, made improvements in keeping with these principles. But that's clearly not the norm. The document outlining the proposed principles notes that “Cookies and cakes, pizza, and soda/energy/sports drinks are the top sources of calories in the diets of children 2 through 18. Chips and french fries comprise half of all the vegetables kids eat.”

The materials released last week make no indication as to what will happen if the food industry opts to thumb its nose at the principles, or, worse yet, pay them lip service while continuing to hawk fat/sugar/salt-laden treats to our kids.

In any case, few people whose kids are young today are likely to see much benefit from the principles or their eventual enactment. If the proposed principles end up being approved by Congress, the food industry would have until 2016 to reformulate products; changes in sodium content would be allowed to occur incrementally, with 2016 as an interim goal and 2021 a final one.

In the meantime, perhaps some of us parents should learn to do a better job of navigating today's tricky food environment with our kids. The phrase “just say no” comes to mind.

Do you think the food industry is likely to embrace these voluntary principles and change its ways accordingly? Do you even agree that the industry should be asked — or required — to do so? Or do you think keeping kids' diets on track should be up to parents?

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