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    Marketing Unhealthy Foods to Kids Should Be Illegal

    Last week, my daughter helped her preschool teacher pronounce the word “quinoa.” She has no clue what Lucky Charms taste like.

    Photo courtesy of Paxton Holley

    She doesn’t beg me to buy her gummy snacks or potato chips when we go shopping because they are not a part of her world.

    But when she starts first grade in another year, her school cafeteria will offer her chocolate and strawberry milk. In another handful of years, she’ll have her own allowance money, and she’ll be confronted with vending machines loaded with unhealthy snacks, strategically located in kid-friendly places. And of course, a vast array of junk food and sugar-laden cereals are located at her eye-level in the grocery store.

    Marketing unhealthy food to children is wrong. The federal government seemed to agree. They’ve authored new guidelines for food companies and marketing groups, asking them to “only market foods to children ages 2 through 17 if they are low in fats, sugars and sodium and contain specified healthy ingredients.” The standards would apply to all marketing mediums (print and online).

    Kids would no longer see ads like this one during Saturday morning cartoons.

    The problem?

    Compliance is voluntary.

    The idea that Big Food can easily undermine my best efforts as a parent to raise my children with a diet of nutritious and real food quite literally nauseates me.

    Yes, parents possess all the buying power when children are young. No one forces mom or dad to pony up for frosted cookies or candy bars, and when the pestering mounts, parents should begin a conversation about food marketing and what it means.

    But as I mentioned to a friend recently, with all the “teachable moments” parents must have with their kids, why should they have to add another about insidious food marketing techniques? These companies are making parenthood (already a challenging job!) even more difficult.

    Yes, it’s not just Big Food marketing to kids. But unlike the products or experiences pushed by toymakers or theme park companies, Big Food’s products can actually have dangerous consequences for kids’ health.

    In addition, what happens when young children turn into tweens with allowances and a lot more freedom to buy their own food?

    Unless they’re savvy enough to know what’s actually in the blue sports drink or the brightly colored bag of cheese puffs with the cartoon character on the outside, and have the fortitude to resist the temptation to purchase what their friends are eating, guess what they’re going to buy?

    And it’s not only children who are tricked by deceptive food marketing.

    Nutella, whose primary ingredient is sugar (a whopping 20 grams per serving-the equivalent of 5 teaspoons), is heavily marketed to moms as a “healthy breakfast choice for kids.” Unless they’re ingredient-savvy (and let’s face it, many are so busy, they don’t have time to be), they will probably believe it.

    And of course, “functional foods” abound on grocery store shelves. Featuring labels that promise better digestion, disease prevention, and a whole host of other miraculous properties, these foods are being gobbled up to the tune of  $37.3 billion dollars in 2009 by people who think they’re buying products that will improve their health when in reality, the claims are hugely exaggerated.

    Childhood obesity and diabetes rates are soaring, and we will all pay the price for these long-term health problems. Parents need to read labels and ingredient lists and act accordingly when choosing foods for their kids.

    But they need a little help too, and food manufacturers and marketers need to act responsibly instead of actively working to negate parents’ best efforts to feed their children healthy meals and snacks.

    Do you think food manufacturers and marketers should be banned from marketing unhealthy products to children? Or do you think it’s solely a parent’s responsibility to manage their kids’ health and diet?

    1 COMMENT FROM Timothy Ellis August 23, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    I could not agree more. This is an area where a little regulation could go a long way towards improving the public good.

    2 COMMENT FROM Kristi August 23, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Tim. It’s in the best interest of kids (who eventually become media-consuming adults) to limit this kind of damaging marketing.

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    Kristi Gaylord is the Director of Social Media for TCA. An avid writer and reader, Kristi’s other interests include distance running and children’s nutrition.

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