Eating Well: It'd Be Easier if SpongeBob Were Hawking Broccoli

by Marian Burros
The New York Times
Wed., Jan. 12, 2005


To those who don't spend a lot of time around children, the boxes and containers lined up in a conference room here last week looked like a collection of toys and games, each bearing the likenesses of characters from Shrek to SpongeBob SquarePants.

But on closer examination these packages contained food: cereals, of course, but also candies, pizzas and pancake syrup. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group often critical of the government and the food industry, displayed the packages to show what children are exposed to in a barrage of food marketing.

Some countries have banned advertising and marketing food products to children, but there are no such federal restrictions in the United States. Marketing bombards children not only through television but also in schools, in movies, video games, Web sites, books and even in textbooks. Because the government isn't expected to ban it any time soon, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has turned to cajoling instead of demanding some changes.

Last week the center, known to its critics as the nation's nanny, published its "Guidelines for Responsible Food Marketing to Children," which if implemented, would reduce the amount and kind of food marketing to which children would be exposed.

At its news conference here, it offered a small sampling of what parents must contend with when they take their children to the grocery store, including an Oscar Mayer pizza Lunchables kit with 45 grams of sugar and SpongeBob SquarePants, the star of the moment, featured on boxes of Pop Tarts in which more than half of the calories come from fat and sugar.

Dr. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition for the center, said that parents bear the primary responsibility for seeing that their children eat the right foods. But, she said, "they are fighting a losing battle against food marketers." In the last 10 years the amount of money spent on marketing food to children has increased to $15 billion from $7 billion.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America says that the center's focus on advertising and marketing is too narrow. It also says its members are introducing more nutritious foods, smaller package sizes and better nutrition labeling.

Earlier this week General Mills announced that it had added whole grains to its cereals, though many of them still contain one gram of fiber or less per serving.

McDonald's Happy Meals now offer apple dippers as an alternative to french fries and low fat chocolate milk instead of a soft drink. Wendy's is offering mandarin oranges and milk. And Kraft has reduced or eliminated trans fats from its Nabisco cookies and crackers and has introduced 100-calorie packs of Oreos and Chips Ahoy. The company has also said it would no longer market its products in schools.

There has been a smattering of support for more responsible marketing in television. Nickelodeon, the children's cable network and home of SpongeBob, has been running public service announcements that encourage exercise and promote healthful foods. But most of the efforts have been in the schools. As of 2003, the date for which the latest figures are available, at least 17 states had enacted some legislation to improve nutrition in school meals. By last spring the Center for Science had collected information on 14 schools showing that offering healthy food and drinks in vending machines had not reduced their profits, and in some instances, had increased them.

Connecticut is one of the states that has imposed stricter nutritional standards on its school food service. In Danbury the Rogers Park Middle School is also part of a pilot program to encourage more nutritious foods in vending machines provided by Stonyfield Farms. The machines' baked chips, yogurt smoothies and lower fat popcorn are particularly popular, said Suzanne Levasseur, coordinator of health services in the Danbury public schools. "Even the older kids have adjusted to it," she said.

Other countries have gone further. Sweden, Norway, Austria and Luxembourg have all banned television advertising to children. School-based marketing has been banned in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Portugal and Vietnam. In Ireland, where television commercials for candy and fast foods are banned, wrappers must carry warnings that fast food should be eaten in moderation and that sugary foods cause tooth decay.

Critics of the proposed guidelines have said that people should be free to eat whatever they want. But personal responsibility goes only so far in combating obesity, according to Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. Americans live in a "toxic food environment," he said.