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SpongeBob offers bad advice on food

Kristen Gerencher MarketWatch

SAN FRANCISCO – SpongeBob’s diet may be full of holes, at least when it comes to the way the cartoon character is used to sell food to children.

That’s just one of the complaints in a new report that takes food marketers to task over their role in the growing problem of childhood obesity in the United States.

The report, which Congress asked for, hits hardest at television advertising, which it says strongly influences what kids younger than 12 request and eat. Those junk-food pitches increase children’s risk of long-term health problems, the study contends. The report was written by a committee of 16 people in disciplines from advertising to psychology to pediatrics who were chosen by the Institute of Medicine, acting at the behest of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The committee’s review indicates that, among many factors, food and beverage marketing influences the preferences and purchase requests of children, influences consumption at least in the short term, is a likely contributor to less-healthful diets, and may contribute to negative diet-related health outcomes and risks among children and youth,” concluded the report, released this week.

Images of friendly cartoon characters such as Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants on food packages should be reserved for more nutritious food rather than for promoting items high in calories, fat, salt and added sugars, the panel advised.

The recommendation with the biggest teeth, however, calls for the industry to market more nutritious fare during children’s broadcast and cable TV programming – and for Congress to enact legislation if self-regulation fails after two years.

Government oversight would be a last but necessary resort because as much as 97 percent of food marketing during kids’ shows is for products high in calories and low in nutrients, said Michael McGinnis, senior scholar at the IOM and chair of the committee.

“That’s proportionately much higher than we see for all food and beverage advertising across the evening hours, not in children’s TV.”

The study comes as a showdown between the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Beverage Association looms. The beverage trade group, in a bid to avert efforts to remove vending machines from schools, released a study last week showing that student purchases of full-calorie sodas fell 24 percent from 2002 to 2004 while sales of other types of beverages such as water and diet sodas increased.

The growth rate for kid-focused foods is much higher than that of the general food market, McGinnis noted. The government could help companies develop and market healthier products to kids by offering tax incentives, he said.

“Industry can be part of the solution,” he said. “This is really an all-hands-on-deck issue.”

Still, he admits many companies are slow to change their ways. “The expressed interest is still rather limited at this point, but it’s growing and we take industry at its word.”

“The real impact of this challenge in many cases won’t be seen for decades, so we could be sitting on a time bomb if the trends continue,” McGinnis said. “Overweight predisposes to increased rate of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer … . There is some urgency to this problem.”

The report sends a strong message, said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of “Food Politics.”

“It basically tells the food industry they need to sit up and take notice and clean up their act, and does it in no uncertain terms,” she said.

Nestle said the marketing of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods to children is insidious not only because it builds brand loyalty and increases the “pester factor” where kids drive purchasing decisions, but persuades kids that they should eat and drink different items than adults do — things like blue macaroni and cheese or sugary cereals with candy mixed in.

The findings aren’t new, but the study’s depth and origin make it influential, said Nestle, who wasn’t involved in the report. “Coming from an organization as prestigious as the IOM, this carries a weight that none of the other reports carries.”

Not everyone sees it that way. Justin Wilson, research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, a coalition of restaurants, food companies and individuals that believe in “personal responsibility and consumer choice,” said physical inactivity and poor parental choices play major roles in kids’ unhealthiness. He questioned the panel’s evidence for its conclusions and recommendations.

“It’s irresponsible to call for sweeping regulations without having the smoking gun,” Wilson said. “It’s the most basic of all sound science: correlation does not equal causality.”

Concern about childhood obesity is gaining ground, and for good reason. In the last 30 years, the obesity rate has more than tripled for children 6 to 11 years old, and it’s doubled for those in the 2-to-5-year-old and 12-to-19-year-old groups, according to a 2004 IOM report. About 9 million children over age 6 are considered obese.

The food, beverage and restaurant industry spent an estimated $11 billion on advertising in 2004, with $5 billion going for TV commercials, the report said. Marketing also occurs through product placement, licensing of cartoon characters, in-school activities and video games.

The report was careful not to lay blame for skyrocketing childhood obesity rates solely on food and beverage companies and fast-food restaurants. The study mentioned parents, media messages, economic disparities and lack of physical activity as other factors contributing to the complex and growing problem of overweight kids.

It also didn’t look at the economics of substituting healthier ingredients for those that are cheaper, more readily available and less nutritionally sound. The need to feed corporate earnings and please “cranky stockholders” is a relentless issue, but another evolving one is avoiding lawsuits from angry consumers, Nestle said.

“That’s the dilemma that everyone is up against,” she said. “There are people in every one of these companies who really would like to do the right thing, but their feet are held to the fire unless they can deliver. If products don’t deliver they’re out of a job.”

Still, Kraft Foods is seeing healthy returns on the foods that qualify for its “Sensible Solution” program, said Mark Berlind, executive vice president of corporate and government affairs. The marker appears on products such as Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Scooby Doo and Lunchables Extra Cheesy Pizza.

“Products that qualify for our Sensible Solution criteria are growing at a rate that’s three to four times faster than the rest of our portfolio here in the United States,” Berlind said. “We think that better nutrition is also good for business.”

The Sensible Solution program reflects category-specific criteria developed based on government nutrition guidelines, he said. But the standards regarding allowable calories per serving or what qualifies as low fat, for instance, are far-ranging and can be difficult to compare.

Kraft is making good on a nearly year-old promise to only advertise foods that qualify for Sensible Solutions in multiple media promotions directed to kids ages 6 to 11, Berlind said. “We’re just getting started here but we think we’re off to a good start.”

Nestle remains unconvinced that the industry’s self-imposed changes are substantial enough to improve kids’ health. “They’re all trying to change appearances because they’re terrified of regulation. If there were regulations, they would have a level playing field that would make their lives easier, but that’s not how they see it.”

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