Yesterday the government proposed new guidelines that could make the concept of a cartoon rabbits pushing sugary cereal just a story you bore your grandkids with. In an effort to curb childhood obesity, the new rules limit how food companies can market unhealthy foods to kids and teens.
The guidelines, which were released by the Federal Trade Commission, wouldn't actually be binding, but companies would be under heavy pressure to adopt them, according to the New York Times. Under the new system, foods advertised to children would have to contain some healthy ingredients, like whole grains, fruits, or vegetables. The amount of sugar, saturated fat, trans fat, and salt would also be limited. At first packaged food wouldn't be allowed to have more than 210 milligrams of sodium per serving, and the limits would get lower over time. Sugar would be restricted to 8 grams per serving. Most prepared foods currently on shelves have way more salt and sugar, and wouldn't be able to target children in advertising unless their recipes were altered.
That's exactly what the government is hoping will happen. The food industry says it's already working to make packaged food healthier and limiting advertising to children, which accounted for $2.3 billion of advertising in 2006. Kellogg says it's been reducing sugar and adding whole grains to many cereals. Scott Faber, a vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, pointed out that there are already fewer ads for prepared foods aimed at kids than there were in 2004. As for making products healthier, he says, "The rate of reformulation is going to increase, not as a result of the principles that were announced today but because consumers are demanding changes in the marketplace."
There may be a demand for healthier foods from parents, but the FTC says kids are still being influenced by pervasive junk food advertising. In addition to TV and print ads, the guidelines would limit how companies can market these foods through social media, online games, and product placement in movies. The commission will be taking suggestions before issuing a final report to Congress.
Advocates who are fighting childhood obesity were pleased to see this government pushing a uniform set of standards for the food industry. University of Arizona communications professor Dale Kunkel, who studies the marketing of children's food, said, "Toucan Sam can sell healthy food or junk food. This forces Toucan Sam to be associated with healthier products." Though, it remains to be seen if Toucan Sam really can make kids find carrots as appealing as sugar-coated cereal.