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Does this ad make your kids look fat?

"I worry that even if Michelle and I do our best to impart what we think are important values to our children, the media out there will undermine our lessons and teach them something different." This statement, made by then Senator Barack Obama during his presidential campaign, speaks volumes about how media is perceived when it comes to marketing to children.

Whether it is cell phones, clothing, music or food, marketing to tots, tweens and teens is big business and a bigger headache for parents to monitor. According to a 2008 Federal Trade Commission study, "Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents: A Review of Industry Expenditures, Activities and Self Regulation," 44 major food and beverage marketers spent $1.6 billion to promote their products to children under 12 and adolescents ages 12 to 17 in the United States in 2006.

The FTC says that even with the billions of advertising and marketing dollars earmarked for the younger set, the agency sees improvement. As many as 13 of the largest food and beverage companies (which account for a majority of the food and beverage expenditures directed toward children) pledge either not to advertise to children under 12, or to limit television, radio, print and Internet advertising to foods that meet specified nutritional standards. In addition, more than three dozen food, beverage and food-distribution companies adopted the Alliance for a Healthier Generation guidelines, which focus on lowering the caloric value and increasing the nutritional value of foods and drinks sold in schools outside the school-meal programme (See Business Strategies here).

Is this enough to build strong bones and reduce the rising rates of childhood obesity? Probably not. There is still too much pop in pop-culture food marketing. Carbonated beverages, restaurant food and breakfast cereals accounted for $1.02 billion of the $1.6 billion, or 63 per cent of the total spent on youth-directed food marketing. An overriding problem, says the FTC, is that each company has a unique definition of healthy.

Now that two young children occupy the White House, voluntary change may not be enough to satisfy the First Family. In January 2009, President Obama signed a bill that calls for the FTC, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Secretary of Agriculture to establish an 'Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children.' The group is directed to study and make recommendations for standards for marketing food to children under 17, especially for foods that make up a significant portion of a child's diet, and report back to Congress by July 15, 2010.

Not terribly surprising, Grocery Manufacturers of America saw the bill as a waste of taxpayer money and the Association of National Advertisers called the move unconstitutional. In my opinion, this is a pork-belly expenditure that deserves a healthy budget, fewer empty calories and less rhetoric. This issue of Functional Ingredients is dedicated to the companies and researchers who place value in our children's health and welfare.

Gratefully yours,

Kimberly Stewart
Editorial Director

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