APCO dietician and nutrition expert Melissa Musiker reacts to last week’s FTC release of the “Proposed Nutrition Principles for Marketing Foods to Children ages 2-17.” She provided some interesting “food for thought” (pun intended!) for our readers below.
Late last week in the United States, at the request of Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, along with partners in an interagency working group at the USDA, FDA and CDC, released for comment a set of “Preliminary Proposed Nutrition Principles for Marketing Foods to Children Ages 2-17.” Congress tasked the working group with developing a set of principles to guide industry efforts to improve the nutritional profile of foods marketed directly to children and to tap into the power of advertising and marketing to support healthful food choices.
The “IWG Guidelines,” as the preliminary proposed nutrition principles are commonly referred to, lay out a detailed set of nutritional criteria to be used in determining the subset of desirable foods that make a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet (fruit, vegetable, whole grain, fat-free dairy, etc.) and at the same time contain limited amounts of nutrients that have a negative impact on health or weight (saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars and sodium). Presumably, foods that fail to meet these standards should not be marketed to children, or their formulation should be changed to make them suitable.
The IWG Guidelines are being released at a time when childhood obesity is viewed as one of the nation’s most serious health threats. Policy-makers and thought leaders are searching for solutions to solve the problem. Many other policy and programs are currently under debate and consideration. For example, since 2006, 17 of the largest food, beverage and restaurant companies have participated in the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). CFBAI participants agree to adhere to a set of core principles that include committing 100 percent of their child-directed advertising to better-for-you foods and the use of established scientific and/or government standards to develop criteria governing what foods they will include in child-directed marketing. They also agree to have the Better Business Bureau monitor and audit their market for compliance with the pledges and transparently report the results of their audits.
The annual audits have consistently demonstrated that CFBAI participants adhere to their pledges and the types of foods marketed to children have changed since the initiation of the program. Industry critics, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, are quick to note that although the CFBAI pledges are imperfect and not internally consistent, CFBAI participants are doing better than non-participants.
The IWG guidelines will not become regulation, nor is it likely in the current political climate that Congress will make them into legislation. But once the principles are finalized and delivered to Congress, they will become de-facto policy and the point of reference against which all child-directed food marketing will be judged. Companies currently participating in the CFBAI are going to be expected to review their pledges and to address the points of discrepancy. Companies not currently participating in the CFBAI will have their marketing plans scrutinized and their lack of participation questioned.
Overly restrictive or broad guidelines limiting child-directed marketing are not the answer. Companies have a constitutional right to free commercial speech. Scientific research has found a link between marketing and preferences (this should come as no surprise) but not a direct causal link between marketing and childhood obesity. Inordinate focus on child-directed food marketing must not distract us from exploring policies and programs with a clear track record of success. Name–and-shame rhetoric using the IWG guidelines as a basis should not replace constructive dialogue and partnerships.
The food, beverage and restaurant industry should consider looking at the release of the IWG guidelines as an opportunity to listen to their customers and think about their marketing practices, the nutritional content of their children’s menus and the formulation of their products. There is a clear business case for taking a hard look at the foods marketed to children and the way those foods are marketed. Parents want better-for-you foods and beverages that are conflict-free no-brainers that taste great, are convenient and are affordable. The challenge for the industry is respond to their consumers’ needs and wants by figuring out how to market fruits, vegetables and whole grains in a way that makes them as appealing to kids and families as chips, cookies and candy.
The food industry, public health advocates, policy-makers and stakeholders need to remember that CFBAI pledges and IWG guidelines are invisible to the consumer. The policy solutions that will be the most effective in the long term are those that will enable and inspire average Americans to make small but significant steps toward achieving healthier lifestyles and diets. It is clear that marketing plays a role, but the nature of that role is clearly up for debate.