Another reason to stop marketing junk food to kids

According to a new study, the more familiar a child is with logos and other images from popular fast food restaurants, snack foods, and sodas, the more likely the child is be overweight or obese. To come to this conclusion, researchers tested preschooler’s knowledge of various brands, including their ability to identify items such as silly rabbits and the golden arches, and found that those who could identify these icons the most, tended to have higher body mass indexes (BMI’s).

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Studies like this speak volumes about the public health concern that is food marketing to children. On television alone, the average U.S. child sees approximately 13 food commercials every day. The food products advertised are almost exclusively for high-sugar breakfast cereals, fast food, candy, and sugary drinks. And companies are starting to get more creative. You can find youth targeted food marketing in schools, on websites, and through social media. The messages kids receive from this advertising are to pester their parents to buy the products, and that consuming high-calorie, nutritionally-poor foods will result in happiness and fun.

Some argue that since young children don’t generally purchase their own food – than the onus should lie in the hands of the parents to protect kids from these messages. When kids nag their parents for the products they’ve seen in advertising, parents should just say, “no.” Or better yet, parents should just shield their children from being marketed to in the first place. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned, this requires more work than just turning off the television. See this great video from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity:

For those parents that aren’t savvy enough to safeguard their children from the $2 billion dollars’ worth of food marketing directed at them every year, it’s the children who pay the price. Companies spend this kind of money marketing to kids because it works. It builds brand loyalty and preferences for unhealthy products at a very early age, likely to last a lifetime. Authors of this study site this as the most troubling potential consequence of their research. They noted that the findings provided insight into children’s relationship with food, and what food means to them.  If a relationship with these brands can already be negatively impacting their weight and health at 3-5 years old, surely it is possible that it will continue to do so.

No matter where we place the blame, one thing is for sure: There is nothing positive that can result from this type of targeted marketing to young people. Exploiting children’s vulnerabilities to make a buck is shameful and as some would argue – even abusive. In fact, Brazil, has made all advertising to children illegal based on this point.

Their resolution states:

The practice of directing advertising and marketing communication to children with the intention of persuading them to consume any product or service is abusive and, therefore, illegal as per the Consumer Defense Code.

Meanwhile, the United States struggles to pass even measly voluntary guidelines for food companies on what types of food they should and should not market to youth. In this country, lobbying speaks louder than common sense public health measures.  Hopefully, studies such as this will help build the case for policies to protect our nation’s children as well.

What’s on the School Lunch Menu? More Politics.

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The School Nutrition Association (SNA) represents the 55,000 school food directors, nutritionists and other professionals that provide school lunch.  Recently, the organization asked Congress to approve waiver requests for schools that are struggling to comply with federal nutrition regulations set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.  Under the Act, schools are required to make several changes based on scientific evidence to make school lunches healthier, such as lowering sodium while adding whole grains and fruit and vegetable servings.  After decades of little to no rules regarding nutrition, some SNA members have undoubtedly faced challenges implementing the new standards for school lunch.

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But as an organization that claims to be committed to delivering healthy school meals, shouldn’t members be trying to help schools implement the guidelines rather than take them away? Turns out, the organization isn’t just representing school food employees. Half of the SNA’s $10 million budget is funded by processed food companies, many of which have a vested interest in keeping their less than healthy products in schools. Scaling back the regulations provides an opportunity to put products from sponsors like PepsiCo and Kraft back on kids lunch trays.

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I spent three weeks of my dietetic internship working in school food service at the Washington Local School District in Toledo, OH. My preceptor was the food service manager for 11 schools in the district. Over the course of the rotation, I heard a lot of complaints from her and the rest of the staff over the newly released (at the time) nutrition standards. The district had just received 6-cent certification, requiring all schools to participate in an audit just a few weeks later. Though they had taken most of the necessary steps to meet the guidelines, she outlined a long list of hurdles they were facing: inability to find suppliers for whole grain products, fresh fruits and vegetables were too expensive, not having enough staff or proper equipment to process fresh foods, kids throwing away the vegetables, etc.

This food service manager was neither a dietitian nor a chef, she was a manager. She was extremely skilled at working under a tight budget (as most school food service managers have to be), but lacked the passion and skills to create healthy, tasty lunches for the kids.

I expressed my interest in trying to help her work on menus to meet both the guidelines and her budget. To get me started, she asked me to mock “audit” what the schools were already doing. In regards to her complaints: she wasn’t wrong. Kids were throwing away some of the vegetables, and were much happier on a day when pizza and french fries were available. However, I quickly saw why (hint: it wasn’t just because the food was healthier.)

It was the presentation. If you make healthier foods look like no one should want to eat them – no one will, especially children used to being served burgers and chicken nuggets. Pale green frozen broccoli covered in a slimy cheese sauce. A lump of fat-free pureed pinto beans. Canned pineapple chunks swimming in juice. It was really no surprise that tray after tray was taken to the trash with these items remaining.

The pinto beans were served on taco day. Why not wrap them right into the taco instead of placing them in the corner of the tray? How about mixing the broccoli in with brown rice and chicken for a stir-fry? And a few seconds to drain that pineapple juice will make it much more appealing. I thought my suggestions were obvious, but the food service manager seemed perplexed. I made additional recommendations to increase vegetable servings without giving kids the option to avoid them, such as adding sweet potato puree to the spaghetti sauce or pumpkin to the macaroni and cheese.   I also told her about recent research from Cornell University that shows fun names can encourage kids to eat their veggies.  “Tiny Tasty Tree Tops” anyone?

I sympathize with the school food service staff. Most have tiny budgets, a small staff with limited skills in real cooking, and kitchens that have been set up to serve processed food. But, we have to start somewhere. Kids don’t like homework, but it doesn’t mean we should stop giving it to them. It helps children develop positive habits that will serve them well throughout their lifetime. Serving healthy lunches can have the same impact.

Michelle Obama, who has been speaking out against the waiver, stated:

It is our job as adults to make sure that our kids eat what they need, not what they want. If I let my kids dictate what we have for dinner every day, it would be french fries, chips and candy. But we don’t run our households like that, and we can’t run our schools like that.

We can’t throw in the towel just because it’s “hard.” What kind of lesson would that be for the kids?

Alice Waters, sustainable agriculture advocate and founder of the Edible Schoolyard, made this excellent point in a recent Time Magazine op-ed:

By allowing fast-food culture into the cafeteria, we have effectively endorsed that industry’s values, helped facilitate the obesity epidemic, widened the achievement gap and aided an addiction to junk.

Lunch needs to be an opportunity for kids to practice what is being taught in nutrition education.  The science-based standards developed for the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act provide an opportunity for just that.  As Alice points out:

By making lunch an interactive part of the curriculum, we empower children to make their own informed decisions.

We don’t need to scale back the regulations, we just need to help food service employees with implementation. 90 percent of districts are currently meeting the standards. Clearly it is possible.

standardsThousands of organizations and health professionals have sent letters to Congress opposing the waiver.  You can join them by signing this petition at Change.org.

The Trouble with Happiness

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Last month, a group of mom’s gathered at McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting demanding the company stop predatory marketing to kids.  While they don’t like to admit it, the company uses a variety of strategies to target young people.  In school, your child might receive a visit from Ronald McDonald to learn about bullying.  At home, your child might see a TV commercial about their favorite toys now available in Happy Meals.  And have you seen HappyMeal.com?

In the new documentary, Fed Up, the filmmakers show McDonald’s executive, Shelly Rosen, stating:

Ronald McDonald never sells to children — he informs and inspires through magic and fun.


Not surprisingly, this boldfaced lie has been getting roars of laughter from audiences across the country, but her statement illustrates an even bigger problem with the way McDonald’s and other junk food companies market to children.  As our country stands in the middle of an obesity crisis, isn’t teaching kids to associate unhealthy foods with happiness a bit dangerous to their health? Of course it is. But, it’s also profitable.


One of the moms standing at the doors of McDonald’s headquarters, was Leah Segedie, a health advocate and blogger, who once struggled with an eating disorder. When she told McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson, that her childhood association of Happy Meal’s and happiness contributed to her disordered eating patterns, and subsequent weight gain, he laughed at her.

McDonald’s isn’t the only food company known for associating it’s products with happiness. This marketing strategy has also worked well for Coca-Cola.

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The soda giant claims they never target children with marketing, yet they ran this commercial during last year’s super bowl.


Not only does it convey the message that Coke equals happiness, but also that children should be rewarded with sugar.  Never mind that the little boy in the commercial would have to run for a full hour and 15 minutes before he would burn off the calories in just one 20 ounce Coke.

Junk food companies want you to think these “happiness” campaigns are just a harmless tactic for promoting products, but they may also teach kids to start associating unhealthy foods with certain moods.  When you are feeling down, for instance, it’s okay to reach for a cheeseburger to make you feel better.  When you are feeling proud of yourself for an accomplishment, go ahead and reward yourself with a sugary drink.  Just the name “Happy Meal” can easily convince a young child that burgers and fries will make them happy.

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With food companies spending nearly 2 billion per year targeting children, our nation’s kids are being bombarded with messages that encourage unhealthy habits. It’s bad enough that these messages have the power to impact children’s food preferences, but they can also influence lifelong eating behaviors, as was the case for Leah Segedie.

If Big Food was really interested in our happiness, they would stop putting profits ahead of children’s health.

A step in the right direction? USDA takes on Food Marketing in Schools

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In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released proposed guidelines to strengthen nutrition and physical activity in schools. As part of the improvements, schools will be asked to establish limits on food and beverage marketing in their wellness policies.

Just how much food and beverage advertising to children see in schools?  The answer: A lot.  Food companies get pretty creative when it comes to targeting youth, and the USDA’s new standards could have the opportunity to cover all of the ways kids see marketing during the school day, including:

  • Scoreboards
  • Curricula, textbooks, and educational materials
  • Vending machines and cooler exteriors
  • Fundraisers
  • Coupon reward programs
  • Signs and posters
  • Sponsorship of programs, events, or teams
  • Food and beverage cups or containers
  • Food display racks
  • Sports equipment
  • School supplies
  • School publications
  • School TV and radio stations
  • School websites
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Scoreboards

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Curricula, textbooks, and other educational materials

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Vending machine and cooler exteriors

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Fundraisers

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Coupon reward programs

Sound like a ton of advertising? It is.  And it happens more often than you think.

Most health and nutrition advocates are applauding the USDA for finally addressing this issue.  Still, some feel that this effort may not be good enough.  In fact, Michele Simon, consultant for Corporate Accountability International, and Josh Golin, associate director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, think these guidelines could set a dangerous precedent:

To our knowledge this is the first time a federal agency has essentially given the green light to any form of marketing in schools, setting a dangerous precedent that goes far beyond food marketing. The danger is that in attempting to set a ceiling that prohibits advertising for unhealthy foods, the USDA will inadvertently set a floor which opens the floodgates for many other types of marketing in schools.

Simon and Golin bring up a good point.  Intentional or not, by telling companies they can only market “healthy” products in schools, the USDA establishes the school environment as an appropriate place to target children.  And, how will “healthy” vs. “unhealthy” be determined?  We know that food companies themselves certainly aren’t capable of making that distinction:

 

And what about brands like Lunchables, which have a few varieties that meet nutrition standards, while most do not?  Should a pizza company be allowed to advertise in schools, simply because they have one pizza out of 1,000 possible topping, crust, and cheese combinations that meet school lunch standards?  Whether intended or not, any product being advertised on school grounds is subsequently carrying the school’s stamp of approval for the entire brand.

Schools should be one of the most trusted and safest environments for kids.  Instead, they’ve become another means for companies to entice our most vulnerable and impressionable population, hooking them on products that aren’t  good for them.

As Simon and Golin point out:

Marketing also undermines education’s vital mission to promote critical thinking skills. Advertising promotes decision-making based on emotional attachments to brands and exploits children’s developmental vulnerabilities, such as susceptibility to peer pressure.

What do you think? Are these guidelines a step in the right direction? Should  food marketing of any kind be allowed in schools?

The USDA is accepting comments on the guidelines until tomorrow, April 28th, 2014.  Take a few moments, and let them know what you think, here.

 

 

 

 

Honest Nutrition Labels: Can They Exist?

Last week, the FDA and First Lady, Michelle Obama, proposed several changes to the Nutrition Facts label. It will likely take several years before these changes are put into place, but it is a great place to start.

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Here are some highlights:

1. Calories will be listed more prominently and in a larger font size, making them easier to find.
2. Serving sizes will be adjusted to more accurately depict what is eaten in one sitting. For instance, a 20 oz. soda will be considered 1 serving, as opposed to 2.5, which has been the case in the past.
3. Calories from fat will no longer be listed, allowing us to focus more on types of fat to be avoided (trans fat) rather than fat as a whole.  Science has shown that dietary fat is not the demon it was once made out to be.
4. Added sugars will now be listed. This is a great addition; one that health advocates have been wanting for a long time, and the food industry will likely try to refute. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we consume less added sugars, but the current food label doesn’t indicate the number of sugars added to foods, only the total grams. This makes determining how much refined sugar the food industry is adding into products very challenging for consumers, especially for foods that contain natural sugars like fruit and dairy products.
5. Vitamin D and Potassium information will now be listed, and listing Vitamin A and C will be voluntary . Vitamin D and Potassium have higher deficiency rates for Americans, making this an important addition.
6. Recommended Daily Values for sodium will go down from 2400 milligrams to 2300, and will go up for fiber from 25 grams to 30. These numbers are being adjusted to better represent what we have learned in the past 20 years about how much we should consume of each of these nutrients.

While these changes are important, and will hopefully help consumers to make healthier food choices, there are many more improvements that could still be made. In fact, the FDA proposed an alternate label that has received much less press.

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In addition to the other changes mentioned, this alternate label also provides information about which nutrients to avoid (trans fat, sodium, added sugars) and which to get more of (vitamin D, fiber, calcium). This label comes much closer to labels advocates have been proposing, such as this label designed by Center for Science in the Public Interest:

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A Nutrition Facts label, such as this, is clearly designed to help consumers make healthier decisions. Of course, the food industry is not in favor of these labels as they might paint a negative picture of their products. Proof of this, is the $50 million they are spending to promote their own voluntary package label, called Facts Up Front.

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The industry calls Facts Up Front “a tool” to help consumers, but as is no surprise, it really just continues to serve the industry’s best interest by allowing companies to highlight positive attributes of a product, without having to warn them about anything negative. Plus, it is confusing. Is 14 grams of sugar a lot or a little? The fiber is high, but so is the saturated fat. Is it healthy or not? This type of labeling also encourages fortification (adding positive nutrients like vitamins and fiber) to make unhealthy products seem more healthy.

Evidence of the confusion over Facts Up Front is further proven in this video from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University:


Despite what the food industry will tell you, consumers clearly aren’t learning much about nutrition from “Facts Up Front.” On the contrary, it will likely continue to cause consumers to choose highly processed, cheaply made junk food that appears healthy — just what the industry wants.

These industry efforts are quite contradictory to their consistent claims that eating well is all about “personal responsibility.” How can consumers eat responsibly if they aren’t receiving clear and honest information?

What do you think? Would any of these labels help you to make healthier choices?

Beware: ‘Simply’ is the new ‘Natural’

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Controversy has been building in recent years over the use of the word ‘natural’ on food packaging.  For health conscious consumers – this term is often interpreted as an indicator of minimally processed, healthful ingredients.  For food companies, the word just means dollar signs.

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A 2009 survey  found that while 35 percent of survey participants rated the label ‘organic’ as either important or very important to their purchasing decisions, ‘natural’ scored significantly higher, at 50 percent.  This is particularly alarming, considering the word ‘organic’ actually has a long list of legal definitions, while the word ‘natural’ essentially has none.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried to develop a legal definition for ‘natural’ back in the 1990’s, but backed away from the issue after facing what I can only assume was a lot of contradictory advice from health advocates and Big Food. But, that hasn’t stopped the food industry from using the label on everything from sugary drinks to highly processed snack foods.  Why not? They know the word ‘natural’ misleads consumers into thinking they are making a better choice. Put simply, if you slap the word onto your product, you will sell more of it.

Just to prove how ridiculous the use of this word has become, non-profit, Organic Voice, took a satirical jab at the issue through this very humorous video:

While the FDA continues to refuse to act, consumer groups and other health advocates have been filing lawsuits to challenge the use of the word on products deemed anything but natural.  Ben and Jerry’s, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Breyer’s Ice Cream, and Goldfish Crackers are just a few examples of brands targeted for using the label on products containing ingredients that do not exist in nature, such as high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, and synthetic cocoa powder.

Not only are these lawsuits costly, but they create a lot of bad press for the companies, causing many manufacturers to pull the ‘natural’ label just to avoid the trouble.  While this might seem like great news, food companies aren’t ready to completely abandon the concept.  There has to be another word that implies health and wholesomeness, but has even less legal meaning in regards to food.

That word is ‘Simply.’

Next time you visit the grocery store, just take a look. It’s everywhere — cookies, ice cream, chips — highly processed foods that would seldom be deemed as a healthy choice are now carrying this word on their label.  According to reports from the Associated Press, PepsiCo has actually admitted to switching their line of ‘Simply Natural’ Frito-Lay chip products, to just ‘Simply.’  If the FDA hasn’t felt pressured enough to deal with the word ‘Natural’ they certainly won’t be touching any other vague, misleading labels anytime soon.

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Buyers beware!

Caramel Colored Cancer

Caramel — a sweet, sticky confection created by heating sugars to create a characteristic brown color and flavor.

Seems like the perfect ingredient for traditionally caramel colored cola beverages.  Except food companies have added a few extra steps to the recipe.   To make the artificial brown caramel coloring commonly found in the ingredient list of popular soda brands like Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper, sugar and heat are still essential.   However, this chemical process adds ammonia and sulfites into the mix, under high pressure and temperatures.

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Sound dangerous?  Turns out it just might be.  These chemical reactions result in the formation of  4 methylimidazole (4-MeI), which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory rats.  While no such tests have been done on people, it is widely known that chemicals causing cancer in animals are considered to pose cancer threats to humans.  In fact,  the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared the chemical as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 2011.  The risks were also high enough for the state of California, which now requires that all products sold in the state which would expose consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI in a day to carry a warning label under the state’s Proposition 65 law.

Despite these conclusions, there are still no existing federal limits on the amount of caramel color allowed in food and beverages, thus making it one of the most widely used food colorings in the country.  In addition to sodas, it can be found in some breads, sauces, crackers, processed meats, and even beer.

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So how much 4-MeI are we consuming? Consumer Reports just released a study  examining levels of 4-MeI in popular brands of soda.  Their research detected varying levels of 4-MeI in all sodas with caramel coloring listed on the ingredient list, with all containing at least 3 micrograms and several exceeding 29 micrograms per 12 ounce can.  Several products including Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, and Malta Goya contained more than 6 times the requirement for a warning label in California.  Authors of the Consumer Reports’ study urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set a maximum level of the substance when it is added to soda or other products, to require labeling when it is added, and to forbid using the word “natural” on the labels of products which contain artificial caramel colors.

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In response to the study, a spokeswoman from PepsiCo (whose products contained some of the higher levels of 4-MeI) told USA Today that the average amount of soda consumed daily by those who drink it is less than the 12-ounce can Consumer Reports used as its basis for measurement. As a result, the company believes that people are not exceeding the intake limit of 29 micrograms a day.

Even if PepsiCo is correct (the spokeswoman conveniently left out how they came up with these details on daily soda consumption), what about those consumers who drink more than the average amount? Don’t they deserve at a least a warning label?  Or couldn’t PepsiCo just reduce the amount of 4-MeI in their product altogether? After Proposition 65 was passed in California, Coke did just that, leaving their products with some of the lowest levels of the carcinogen in the Consumer Reports study.

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Though the FDA still believes there is no harm in consuming products which contain caramel coloring, the recent study has prompted the organization to take another look, and I applaud them for doing so.   Unfortunately, until the FDA takes action, the best consumers can do to avoid exposure to 4-MeI is to choose soft drinks and other foods that do not list “caramel color” or “artificial color” on their ingredient list.