Considering the looming children's health crisis in the United States, are companies acting ethically when selling products to kids? Joysa Winter examines the steps some of the biggest companies are doing to offer better nutritional choices to parents and children
Healthy children's food products have been hot for years and despite the recession, last year was no different. According to data from Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ), the segment generated $10.1 billion in consumer sales in the United States in 2008, making up some 10 per cent of total nutrition-industry sales.
Despite such strong numbers, however, the health problems of children in America remain staggering. Nearly 17 per cent of children aged two to 19, are obese and the Centers for Disease Control see a difficult future ahead of them. Thirty-five per cent of Caucasians and 50 per cent of blacks and Hispanics born since the year 2000 will have diabetes in their lifetime, many before they even graduate from high school, the agency predicts.
As everyone knows, every food can have its place. Even the 'bad ones.' The problem is not that kids eat the occasional ice cream cone or potato chip. The problem is when candy becomes their main course.
Without question, there is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to identifying the reasons why America's kids are eating themselves into the cardiac ward: neighbourhoods built without sidewalks, phys-ed programmes cut from schools, soda machines on just about every street corner.
The piece of this pie that rests on the food industry, however, is not necessarily that it makes not-so-great-for-you foods. It's how it markets them. Kids are all about instant gratification, and when an ad with a cute cartoon for a high-sugar or high-fat treat pops up on TV, why wouldn't they demand it the next time they're at the store?
In recent years, policymakers in Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, and agencies such as the Institute of Medicine have all called for tighter controls on this kind of advertising, and in November 2006, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) 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 its launch three years ago, 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 must 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 — or to not advertise to kids at all.
In addition, to be considered a better-for-you product, the company must meet 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 scope of the problem
The initiative couldn't have come at a better time. Barely six months after launching, in March 2007, the Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation released the largest study to date on TV food advertising to children. What it found is that foods are the top products seen by children in all television advertising — and these foods are not fruits and veggies.
The study, titled "Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States," found that 34 per cent of all kids' food ads are for candy and snacks, 28 per cent are for cereal, and 10 per cent are for fast foods. Only four per cent are for dairy products and one per cent for fruit juices. Of the 8,854 ads reviewed, none was for fruits or vegetables.
Tweens ages eight-12 were the most impacted. They saw an average of 21 TV ads a day for food, or 7,600 a year. Teens saw slightly fewer, at 17 a day, for more than 6,000 a year.
"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 programme launched three years ago, participant companies have worked hard to reformulate existing products or create new ones to meet their commitments, says Elaine Kolish, vice president and director of the 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 12g of sugar per serving, exclusive of naturally occurring sugars."
The cereals are also fortified with at least 8g of whole grains, plus vitamins and minerals.
Just this June, Kellogg's, the world's leading cereal producer, announced that it is adding fibre to many of its cereals in the United States and Canada. By the end of 2010, nearly 80 per cent of the company's US ready-to-eat cereals will be at least 'good' to 'excellent' sources of fibre.
The first increases are appearing in the company's most-popular children's cereals, including Froot Loops and Apple Jacks, which will go from less than 1g of fibre per serving to 3g. The new formulations began hitting store shelves in August.
Calling for a culture shift
Francine Kaufman, MD, emeritus professor of pediatrics at the USC Children's Hospital Los Angeles, applauds the efforts. The author of the 2005 book, Diabesity (Random House), she 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? Well, we'd like to see them go even further. For example, in regards to the children's cereals, we'd like to see more fibre, maybe a way to get protein in there. We'd also like as much of the preservatives and chemicals removed as possible. They don't need to be coloured. And we really don't need marshmallows added either."
Kaufman would like 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 the age of two, children are receiving an inordinate amount of media messaging, and at that age, they are "incredibly vulnerable" to wanting to obtain 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 Kaufman 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 age seven to nine years old, 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 to communicate what truly are the appropriate amounts."
Opportunities for the industry
Meanwhile, 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 in weight and diabetes care and prevention. In particular, NBJ identifies fibre, B vitamins, magnesium and chromium. In total, the diabetes supplements market added $46 million in new sales in 2007, which is $13 million more than was added in 2006.
Data from Mintel Global New Products Database indicates product innovation is continuing.
Worldwide, 989 new food and drink products with a weight-control claim were launched in 2008, up from 898 launches in 2007. For foods and drinks with a cardio claim, there were 631 launches in 2008, compared to 429 in 2007. Finally, for products claiming to be suitable for diabetics, there were 584 new launches in 2008, versus 500 in 2007. The database does not distinguish between child- or adult-focused products.