Food Crime Friday: Lunchables Kabobbles

For today’s busy parents, the ease of grabbing a few boxes of Kraft Lunchables and never giving lunch another thought, can be very enticing.  But from a nutrition standpoint, Lunchables are (by far) one of the worst packaged products that directly target children.  Case in point: Lunchables Kabobbles.


When most of us think of a kabob, we envision a nutritious combination of grilled meats, seafood, fruits, and vegetables.  However, in true Lunchables fashion, Kabobbles only contain processed meats and cheeses, and are accompanied by sugary drinks and candy.

For example: the Chicken Popper Kabobble contains Oscar Mayer breaded chicken poppers, Kraft American cheese product, pretzel sticks, Hershey’s kisses, and a Fruit Punch Capri Sun.  Looking at the nutrition information, the calories are actually pretty low at 350, but that’s only because of the small quantity of food provided.

Lunchables nutrition

Each package contains 6g of saturated fat and 540 mg of sodium, which according to the American Heart Association, is more than 1/3 of the daily needs for an 8-year-old child.  Thanks to the candy and sugar-sweetened beverage, this product also contains a whopping 26g of sugar.  That is more than DOUBLE the recommendation for an 8-year-old for the entire day.  It also means that this product is more than 25% sugar, by weight.  Yikes.

As for nutritional benefits, this product does contain 15g of protein (a nutrient most American children get plenty of) and about 15% of their daily need for calcium, but is not a significant source of any other beneficial nutrient.  Most notably, the product contains less than 1g of fiber per package.

Just for fun, I thought I would also include the ingredient list which is so long, I had to take two separate screen shots to capture it all.

Lunchables ingredients 2Lunchables ingredient 2

Bottom line: These products are not appropriate for children, and it is truly shameful that Kraft takes advantage of busy parents and impressionable kids by marketing them as such.

Food Crime Friday: Nesquik “Girl Scout Cookie” Flavored Drinks

The Girl Scouts of America has recently partnered with Nestle to create two drinks with beloved Girl Scout cookie flavors: Thin Mint and Caramel Coconut.

girlscoutnesquik-promoWhile the packaging boasts about 8g of protein and “a good source” of calcium, these drinks are far from a nutritious beverage – especially for young children. And here’s why:

Each 14 oz. bottle appears to be single-portioned, but the Nutrition Facts label claims it is actually 2 servings.  This makes the rest of the nutrition information look more favorable, but it is highly unlikely that anyone would drink less than the entire bottle in one sitting.  Since each serving contains 24 grams of sugar, the whole bottle contains twice that – a whopping 48 grams.

Milk does contain some naturally occurring sugar (about 22 g per 14 ounces of low-fat milk).  Taking this into account, these drinks still contain no less than 26 g of added sugar per bottle – that’s more than SIX teaspoons! The American Heart Association recommends that children aged 4 to 8 consume no more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar in an entire day.  Preteens and teenagers are recommended to have no more than 5 to 8 teaspoons.  Even adult women and men and are not recommended to have more than 6 or 9 teaspoons, respectively.

Nesquik Nutrition

The real problem here isn’t that a company like Nestle decided to create a product like this.  The problem is that it is tied to the Girl Scouts of America – an organization that prides itself on teaching young girls how to become strong leaders to “make the world a better place.”  Sugar-sweetened beverages are linked to more than 180,000 obesity-related deaths worldwide each year.   Licensing the Girl Scouts logo to help Nestle market a hyper-sweetened beverage to children (including their own members) certainly doesn’t set a good example about making beneficial contributions to society.

Nestle has tried to claim that this product is only being marketed towards adults.  Sorry Nestle, but you lose that argument immediately when there is a cartoon bunny on the bottle.

Looking over the Girls Scouts website, it is apparent that the organization does attempt to address healthy eating in their programming.  In fact, the organization states:

Girl Scouts of the USA recognizes that girls making healthy choices and promoting healthy living are necessary to the foundation they need to become strong leaders.

Marketing this product with the Girl Scouts logo is in direct contradiction to this concept, and I’m certainly not the only one who thinks so.  You can read more from parents and advocates outraged by this issue, and even sign a petition asking Girl Scouts to stop marketing the drinks to kids.

Food Crime Friday: Taco Bell’s Foundation for Teens

I’ve decided to add a new category to my blog, called Food Crimes!  Every Friday, I’ll be posting about a misleading or deceptive marketing tactic being used to sell unhealthy products.  Most of us have been duped by food marketing at some point – mislead into purchasing a product we thought was good for us.  Or maybe there is a marketing practice targeting kids that is particularly shameful.  Whatever the scenario – you can find it here every Friday!

To start things off – Taco Bell’s Foundation for Teens.

TBFFT-RGB-StandardThe Taco Bell Foundation for Teens has announced it will provide funding to Junior Achievement, an organization dedicated to empowering young people to pursue higher education. Taco Bell claims that the partnership shows their commitment to ensuring students are prepared for a successful career.  Why is this a food crime?   Clever marketing tactics disguised as philanthropy is just another play in the food marketing playbook. The collaboration between Taco Bell and Junior Achievement, enables the company to easily connect with teens, a highly desirable market.  For example, a recent Junior Achievement back-to-school event offered students free Taco Bell products, distributed from a heavily-branded Taco Bell truck. The money provided by Taco Bell is surely small potatoes in comparison to the return they will receive by attracting new customers.  If the company was truly just interested in giving back – they would provide funding without the additional peddling of their unhealthy products to youth.

The Trouble with Happiness


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

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.


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.


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

mandm counting graph

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


mandm counting graph

Curricula, textbooks, and other educational materials


Vending machine and cooler exteriors




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.





Tis the Season for Marketing Coke to Kids

santa Coke commercial

What is the first sign that the holidays are around the corner? The first decorations going up in the shops and supermarkets? When the radio stations start playing holiday-themed music?


For many of us, it’s the moment when we see that familiar fleet of twinkling Coca‑Cola trucks make their way across our television screen to bring light and joy (and plenty of sugary Coke!) to the masses.  Though the Christmas themed trucks are a fairly recent tradition, Coca-Cola has been associating their products with Santa Claus and the holiday season since the 1930’s.  Which is why it seems ridiculous that the company claims not to market their products to children.

Earlier this year, the Coca-Cola Company released a frenzy of media activity surrounding their global plan to tackle obesity.  This included a promise not to advertise to children under 12 anywhere in the world.  Coca-Cola had already claimed to have banned marketing to the under-12 demographic in the United States.

While Coke received some praise for these efforts, most health advocates weren’t buying it.  After the release of the campaign, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff spotted an ad from Coke in the June 17th edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which stated:

For over 50 years we’ve adhered to a company policy that prohibits advertising soft drinks to children… we’ve recently extended this policy to include all forms of media, including broadcast, print, the web and beyond.

Coke Ad

Here is one of Coke’s latest forms of broadcast media, which by the terms of their policy, they must believe does not appeal children:

Does Coke honestly think children under 12 aren’t going to be enticed by an animated commercial about Santa Claus? Of course they don’t.  On the contrary, this is the perfect example of a commercial Coke knows WILL target children, but the company could easily make a claim that it is designed for older children and adults.  While many adults do enjoy Santa, you cannot deny that the jolly guy in the red suit and the magic of the North Pole predominantly appeals to children.

The holiday season also provides the perfect environment for pushing Coke’s family of polar bears in their advertising.  In fact, the following was found in Coke’s online store as part of their holiday gift guide:

coke screenshot

Don’t branded toys count as marketing? While Coke might be able to claim that this stuffed bear is made for adults, the company actually goes out of its way to RECOMMEND the toy for “little ones” age 3 and up.  Wouldn’t this fit that part about ‘beyond’ in their ban on child targeted marketing?

Even the packaging itself is being designed in a way that could appeal to children.  For the last few years, Coke has used the holiday season to sell ornament-shaped bottles of their products, once again starring cartoon versions of their famous family of polar bears.

coke bottles

The food industry spends nearly 2 billion per year in the U.S. marketing to kids, advertising mostly unhealthy products.  Based on the media coverage, it might appear that the Coca-Cola company isn’t a part of this public health problem, but their actions continue to show otherwise.  If Coke wants to use Christmas to sell their products, they are entitled to that.  But, claiming that this marketing isn’t used to persuade children to associate Coke with the happiness and joy of the holiday season is shameful.

A Positive Spin on Food Marketing to Kids

Yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) have teamed up with Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) in a two-year agreement to help promote fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to kids.


According to PHA’s website:

The agreement allows PMA’s community of growers, suppliers and retailers to take advantage of the power and influence of the Sesame Street brand without a licensing fee, using characters like Big Bird, Elmo and Abby Cadabby to help convey messages about fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sesame Street characters could be showing up on produce as early as mid-2014.

In her statement, the First Lady cited a recent study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine conducted by researchers at Cornell University. Researchers gave children a choice between eating an apple, a cookie, or both and most kids chose the cookie. Not surprisingly, when the researchers put Elmo stickers on the apples and let the kids select again, the number of kids who chose the apple nearly doubled.

Most often, we see food companies enticing kids with characters on junk food products like sugary cereals and snacks.  Massive marketing budgets allow the food manufacturers to do this, and it works.


Finally, these same marketing techniques will be used to help parents, instead of undermining them, making it easier to get kids to eat more fruits and veggies.  How great will it be to see beloved children’s characters like Big Bird and Elmo promoting apples and bananas instead of real fruit imposters like Pop-tarts and Popsicles?

Will efforts like this be enough to counteract the billions spent on marketing junk food to children?  Probably not at first, but it is a nice step towards leveling the playing field.  While policies to curb the relentless marketing of unhealthy products have been stymied by Big Food lobbyists, I have to applaud creative ideas like this that can work in congruence with future policy efforts.

Some food policy experts, like Marion Nestle, question the ethicality of marketing to children in any capacity – even if it’s for products we know are good for them.  Studies have shown that children are unable to distinguish marketing from entertainment until at least age 8.  But if marketing such as this poses no harm, and actually serves to benefit children, shouldn’t we be all for it? What do you think?