Three years after launching, 15 of America's largest food manufacturers and food-service companies are now participants in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.
An example of an industry choosing to self-regulate, the initiative has also inspired look-alike initiatives around the world, including Advertising Standards Canada, and the European Pledge Program in the European Union, both started in 2007. Comparable programs in Thailand, Australia and South Africa also have been launched, the Better Business Bureau reports.
Created by the BBB in November 2006, the initiative requires participating companies to devote at least 50 per cent of their advertising in measured media primarily directed to children under age 12 to promoting healthier dietary choices or better-for-you products.
In addition, to be considered a better-for-you product to be marketed to children, the company must nutritional criteria based on established science or government guidelines, such as USDA Dietary Guidelines, or the Food and Drug Administration's definition of "healthy foods."
The participating companies — which include Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods, General Mills, and McDonald's USA — accounted for an estimated two-thirds of all children's food-and-beverage TV advertising in 2004.
Participants have worked hard to bring their food products to reformulate existing products or create new ones to meet their commitments under the initiative, said Elaine Kolish, vice president and director of the initiative.
"For example, both General Mills and Kelloggs have established their own nutritional criteria, which are very rigorous," Kolish said. "Both have reformulated the cereals they advertise to children in the past year to limit them to 12g of sugar per serving, exclusive of naturally occurring sugars.
"I think there is a misconception that reformulation is easy. It isn't. When you take out sugars, for example, you have to worry about more than just sweetness — there is taste, mouthfeel, other issues to consider. Just changing an ingredient is harder than it looks."
New recipes, new menus
The formulation changes move beyond merely removing less-desirable ingredients, Kolish said.
"If you look more closely at the foods by these companies, they are not just lower in calories, fats and sugars. They are affirmatively providing good nutrients. The vast majority of the products are not just better for you (than they used to be), they are actually good for you," she said.
For example, in the cereals category, all have been fortified with at least 8g of whole grains, as well as vitamins and minerals. McDonald's has launched a meal for children called a snack wrap, with chicken, cheese and lettuce, and a fruit and yoghurt parfait. Eleven out of 13 of Campbell's children's soups now limit themselves to 480mg of salt, which is the "healthy" level established by the FDA.
"In 2008, Burger King added fresh apple fries (apples sliced to look like fries) to its kids menu, and in 2009 it switched from low-fat milk to fat-free milk in all of its restaurants," Kolish said. "The participants continue to be improving their offerings. We (at the BBB) always intended this to be a dynamic program, and that promise is being kept."
If two-thirds of all children's food advertising involves participating companies, what is the situation with the remaining one-third? Why are those companies not coming on board?
"That's tough to answer," Kolish said. "Of course we welcome everyone to join, and we reach out on a regular basis. As for why some choose not to, it might be because some have limited food portfolios that have no better-for-you products (such as candy companies). Maybe they feel like they already have good products, that they are doing their part, so they don't need to join. It might be because there is a fee for joining. I really cannot speak for them."
Among the larger food companies that have not joined include TOPPS candy company, Chuck E Cheese, Subway and Sunny Delight.
For more on Joysa Winter's research on marketing tots to teens, be sure to read the October issue of Functional Ingredients magazine and the website.