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The naked truth about kids’ food advertising

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 24-Jan-2011

It was an Emperor’s New Clothes moment for the US food industry last week, when it was revealed that a major initiative touting its responsible advertising to kids actually allows promotion of many unhealthy foods. Is anyone really surprised?

As in the fairytale – in which everyone praises the emperor’s sumptuous new clothes without daring to point out that he is, in fact, naked – the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) has long been commended for its vocal stance on restricting direct advertising of unhealthy foods to children, but it seems no one has looked very hard at the substance of its claim.

The 17 companies that are CFBAI members have vowed “to shift the mix of advertising messaging directed at children to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthier lifestyles.” The initiative specifies that advertising should not be directed to children under 12 unless foods meet government standards defining the term “healthy” or the American Heart Association’s HeartCheck program criteria. Personally, I would like to see a ban on all advertising directed primarily to children, but the CFBAI program seemed like a good compromise.

So when a new study last week revealed that of 58 products made by companies that participate in the initiative, 49 did not meet these standards, industry should have been blushing.

Take a look at some of the products that qualify under the scheme as healthy enough to be advertised as healthy options for children under 12: there are cookies, desserts, sugary cereals, pizza, even Burger King hamburgers. What’s the point in having a self-regulatory system if its standards are this lax?

Now, I don’t doubt that CFBAI members, like other key players in the food industry, have made great strides to reformulate their products to contain less added sugar, less sodium and less saturated fat, and they should be commended for those efforts. A program such as the CFBAI has great potential to shift product formulation and have a positive effect on children’s diets, but its standards need to be strict – and strictly enforced.

The CFBAI assesses program compliance every year, and its latest report found that more than half (52 percent) of the cereals that participants advertised to children contained 10 grams of sugar or less, with some product levels down from 15 to 16 grams per serving before the initiative began. This is great news and industry should be applauded for taking so much sugar out of kids’ diets.

But that also means that nearly half (48 percent) of cereals from companies taking part in the program contain more than ten grams of sugar per serving. Remember, these are just the ones that the program allows to be advertised directly to young children.

In other areas, the initiative has greater success: Its compliance report claims that about a third of participants’ television advertising directed toward children advertised a product containing at least a half serving of vegetables or fruit; a third included milk or yogurt; and 27 percent of commercials were for meals that provided a half serving of whole grains.

The scheme needs to build on those numbers, and cut out advertising of foods clothed in only the flimsiest of claims. If it can really live up to its promise to shift food advertising toward healthier options, perhaps it can prevent more red faces.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.

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