Sweet Surrender
Under Siege, Companies Begin Replacing Familiar Junk-Food Pitches and Products

By Susan Levine and Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 22, 2008

An industry that has been skewered repeatedly during the past decade -- blamed for the super-sizing of millions of American children -- is altering how it makes and markets snacks, beverages and other temptations of young consumers.

Motivated by the triple threat of bad publicity, tougher regulation and costly lawsuits, some of the country's biggest food companies have curtailed child-targeted advertising of certain high-calorie products. No longer does Kraft play its classic jingle that a "kid'll eat the middle of an Oreo first," at least not during programs for children. Hershey's and Mars have pulled candy pitches to the under-12 crowd. Other companies are emphasizing baked versions of old fried favorites. Or reformulating the foodstuffs, reducing sodium in some varieties of Lunchables and lowering sugar and fat in cereals such as Spider-Man 3.

No less than fast-food giant McDonald's now offers sliced apples and 1 percent milk as options in its Happy Meals. And Disney, which is putting iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse on milk, fruits and vegetables, has gone still further at its California and Florida theme parks. There, meals for children come with a health drink and fruit or veggie side unless diners ask to substitute soda and fries.

Critics say the industry can do much more. Plenty remains unhealthy in the food universe; improvements might make an item less egregious, but that doesn't mean it's suddenly nutritious. Still, many people are encouraged.

"Compared to where we were just two years ago, the progress has been epochal, huge," said Stephen Gardner, who heads litigation at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The fact that companies are agreeing to stop marketing their junkiest foods to the youngest people is incredible."

Federal officials, who have pushed but not forced action, say there appears to be a fundamental shift.

"They are stepping up," Acting Surgeon General Steven K. Galson said. "I'd like to see them compete with each other for who can do more."

The competition could go global. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, the world's two largest beverage companies, announced Tuesday that they would extend their U.S. ban on ads geared toward children to their international markets by the end of this year. The action will encompass all venues, from mobile texting to the Internet and movie product placement, where audiences are younger than 12.

In partnership with the International Council of Beverage Associations, both pledged to review their sponsorships, presence in schools and store promotions by the end of 2009. Coca-Cola said it would include every product, not just carbonated beverages.

Even as the industry changes, however, it maintains that overweight and obesity are as much issues of personal responsibility. Blaming companies is "very convenient," Maureen L. Storey, senior vice president for science policy for the American Beverage Association, reiterated recently. "What people fail to realize is . . . obesity is caused by a lot of different factors. Some you can control, some you can't. We don't know why there are different [body mass indexes] between one child and another child. Some of the things we are able to explain have to do with factors you can't change -- age, race, ethnicity, gender."

Yet the dramatic transformation of Americans' "food environment" is beyond dispute. Over the past 30 years, previously stable rates of weight growth have climbed sharply, especially among children. Choices are denser in calories, restaurant servings are larger, and items once thought of as indulgences have become commonplace for all ages. Many schools remain prime settings for companies' branding.

It was the scathing book "Fast Food Nation" in 2001 that first drew real public attention to what author Eric Schlosser labeled "the dark side of the all-American meal." Several years later, the documentary "Super Size Me" made graphic visual points. By 2005, the Institute of Medicine had homed in on the extensive marketing of food and drink to children -- estimated at $12 billion annually -- which it called "at best, a missed opportunity, and, at worst, a direct threat to the health of the next generation."

The turning point was 2006, when two landmark pacts took effect aimed at improving snack nutrition standards and restricting sales to children by companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dannon and Campbell. "We said, 'You can work with us . . . or you can be part of the problem,' " said Brian Herr, executive director of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which negotiated the deals.

A third action that fall was industry-generated, with provisions for marketing monitoring that even health advocates think could have a substantial effect. Kellogg led the way -- averting a lawsuit by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood -- when it agreed to advertise to predominantly child audiences only those foods that met certain thresholds: 200 or fewer calories, no more than two grams of saturated fat and no more than 12 grams of sugar.

Under the Council of Better Business Bureaus' initiative, a dozen other corporations are committed to similar strictures. Each will promote healthy nutrition or lifestyle choices in at least half of their advertising to children younger than 12. The council estimates that the group accounts for the bulk of children's food and beverage television advertising expenditures.

"They need to measure up, and they need to scale down to their promise, because if obesity rates continue to rise, you can be sure that the pressure for government to intervene will be hard to resist," Jon Leibowitz of the Federal Trade Commission told a forum last year. The FTC, which has noted marketers' ever-expanding online and digital venues for reaching children, will release its most comprehensive study on the subject in the summer. It is expected to urge broader and more stringent self-regulation.

Compliance on any front is no easy or inexpensive task. To fulfill the agreement reached with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the American Beverage Association has had to retrofit containers and vending machines because 20-ounce drinks no longer will be allowed in schools. The new standard is a 12-ounce bottle in high schools, smaller for lower grades.

Although the agreement doesn't fully take effect until the 2009-10 school year, ABA statistics indicate substantial differences already. From 2004 to 2007, shipments of sugary sodas and drinks to U.S. schools fell by 45 percent; water deliveries increased 23 percent.

The more forward-looking companies are realizing that they perhaps can do well and do good. It's a position the country's acting surgeon general stresses: "Preventing obesity does not have to interfere with profit."

When McDonald's repackaged its milk into brightly decorated plastic jugs, sales doubled. Walt Riker, McDonald's vice president of corporate communications, anticipates future choices such as vitamin drinks and fruit smoothies.

Numerous companies have launched 100-calorie snack packs, and they are developing a wider array of products without cholesterol-elevating trans fats.

"We think that everyone has to work together to solve the problem," said Jim McCarthy, chief executive of the Snack Food Association. "There's not one silver bullet that's going to solve the obesity issue."

Staff writer Kendra Marr contributed to this report.

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