While other sectors struggle, the market for healthy children's products is booming—it generated $10.1 billion in consumer sales in the United States in 2008, according to Nutrition Business Journal. The stats on the ground, however, are still grim: Nearly 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are obese, reports the Centers for Disease Control. And the agency says 35 percent of Caucasians and 50 percent of blacks and Hispanics born since 2000 will have diabetes in their lifetimes.
What onus falls on the food industry? Certainly not-so-great-for-you foods play a role but so does marketing. When an ad with a cute cartoon for a high-sugar or high-fat treat pops up on TV, why wouldn't kids demand that product the next time they're at the store with their parents?
In recent years, policymakers in Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and agencies such as the Institute of Medicine have called for tighter controls on this kind of advertising, and in November 2006, the Better Business Bureau took a step in that direction. The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative became an example of an industry choosing to self-regulate. Since the initiative's launch, 15 of America's largest food manufacturers and food-service companies have become participants. Together, they represent two-thirds of all children's food advertising on TV.
Under the voluntary initiative, participating companies that market to children under age 12 must devote at least 50 percent of their advertising to promoting healthier dietary choices or products—or not advertise to kids at all. In addition, the company must meet nutritional criteria based on established science or government guidelines.
What the research says
In March 2007, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation released the largest study to date on TV food advertising to children. It found that foods are the top products seen by children in all television advertising. About 34 percent of all kids' food ads is for candy and snacks, 28 percent is for cereal and 10 percent is for fast foods. Only 4 percent is for dairy products, and 1 percent for fruit juices. Of the 8,854 ads reviewed, none were for fruits or vegetables.
"Children of all ages see thousands of food ads a year, but tweens see more than any other age group," says Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of the Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "Since tweens are at an age where they're just becoming independent consumers, understanding what type of advertising they are exposed to is especially important."
Since the BBB program launched three years ago, participant companies have worked hard to reformulate existing products or create new ones to meet their commitments, said Elaine Kolish, vice president and director of the BBB initiative.
"For example, both General Mills and Kellogg's have established their own nutritional criteria, which are very rigorous," Kolish says. "In 2008, both have reformulated the cereals they advertise to children to limit them to 12 grams of sugar per serving, exclusive of naturally occurring sugars." The cereals are also fortified with at least 8 grams of whole grains, plus vitamins and minerals.
Last June, Kellogg's, the world's leading cereal producer, announced that by the end of 2010, nearly 80 percent of the company's U.S. ready-to-eat cereals will be at least good to excellent sources of fiber. The first increases are appearing in the most popular children's cereals, including Froot Loops and Apple Jacks, which will go from less than 1 gram of fiber per serving to 3 grams. The new formulations began hitting store shelves in August.
A challenge for manufacturers
Dr. Francine Kaufman, emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, applauds the efforts. The author of Diabesity (Bantam, 2005) is considered a national expert in the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes among America's children.
"Of course it's great to see them come forward and do things that are very intuitive for those of us who have been working for years in the childhood-obesity space," she says. "Is it enough? We'd like to see them go even further. In regards to the children's cereals, we'd like to see more fiber, maybe a way to get protein in there. We'd also like more of the preservatives and chemicals removed. They don't need to be colored, and we really don't need marshmallows added either."
Kaufman wants food companies to help expand the definition of what constitutes "breakfast" in the minds of young Americans. "We'd like to see other options for breakfast—having fruits and vegetables, other choices. Kids get locked into just wanting cereals, which are all still highly processed foods, and we'd like to see other choices having more play in their lives."
Research shows that by age 2, children are receiving an inordinate amount of media messaging and are "incredibly vulnerable" to wanting items they see on TV, Kaufman says. They also can't tell the difference between a TV show and an advertisement.
"All of the cobranding, comarketing, it all has a huge influence on children, and we know that they drive the consumption at the grocery store for products that are less than optimal for health," Kaufman says. One challenge she offers to food manufacturers is to begin adding the issue of portion control to their messaging, because research shows that the growing size of people's dinner plates is directly correlated to the growing size of the American waistline.
"For kids ages 7 to 9, they sit at a table with a big box of cereal and pour out an excessive amount. As bowls and plates have gotten bigger over the years, so has the size of what people think a 'portion' is. We would like to see advertising and how products are packaged communicate what truly are the appropriate amounts."
Where do naturals fit in?
As major food manufacturers work to improve their products and clean up their messaging, some in the industry see a sweet spot for small companies to step in and fill the void.
"Certainly, the large food companies are stepping up to reformulate their products so that they are healthier for children, but a gap appears to remain between what manufacturers are producing and what parents desire," explains Patrick Rea, publisher and editorial director of NBJ. "This is leaving plenty of room for small companies to take some product risks and develop new offerings that offer healthy eating and balanced nutrition in new, convenient ways."
Ingredients suppliers can also tap the opportunities by successfully communicating their products' benefits for weight loss and diabetes care and prevention. In particular, NBJ identifies fiber, B vitamins, magnesium and chromium. The diabetes supplements market added $46 million in new sales in 2007, which is $13 million more than was added in 2006.