Food Marketing is Hurting Our Kids

By BETSY GARDNER

The cartoon rabbit gazes into the window, eyes widened at the slow motion video of colored cereal pebbles lusciously bobbing among a stream of milk. Dance music thumps in the background, and a little cartoon girl whirls around, holding a bowl filled with Trix cereal, brilliantly flashing in the animated party lights. The rabbit bounds in, and the girl explains that the birthday party is for him. He gets a special surprise gift – and you can too! Later, while the cartoon girl delightedly receives her gift in the mail, an adult voice trumpets “And so can you, if you purchase a specially marked box of Trix cereal… part of a good breakfast.”

What’s missing from this thirty-second commercial? How about several spoonfuls of added sugars, the threat of childhood diabetes, and the absence of an actually nutritious breakfast? Indeed, two of the top ingredients for this kids’ cereal are sugar and corn syrup, plus a solid dose of trisodium phosphate, Yellow Dye 6, and the unexplained acronym BHT “added to preserve freshness.”

In the past several years, as rates of childhood obesity have soared, medical experts and advocacy groups have lobbied to increase the nutritional content of kids’ foods and to prevent the invasive marketing tactics that major food corporations use to promote unhealthy foods to children. One-third of children today are classified as either overweight or obese, and children born in the last fifteen years have a one in three chance of developing Type 2 diabetes.

These youth will age into adults needing expensive medical care and attention, threatening to put an incredible strain on the American health care system. It also has impacts on American security; recently retired military leaders went to Washington to testify that poor youth nutrition and childhood obesity has led to ranks of physically unfit soldiers incapable of properly protecting the country.

Unfortunately, recent attempts to address high calorie/low nutrient advertising for kids have failed as members of Congress responded to the lobbying pressures of big food companies instead of the interests of their own constituents.

So what’s to be done? With failures of the food industry and the American government, it is time to address these issues ourselves and increase public awareness on how damaging these foods really are. We must also place pressure on the government to create protective policy that’s in the best interest of the public instead of the financial interest of fast food corporations. A 2009 study in The Annual Review of Public Health,How Food Marketing Contributes to Childhood Obesity and What Can Be Done,” showed clear links between food advertisements that promoted sugar-filled cereals and beverages, high calorie foods and frequent snacking, and the dramatic increase of childhood obesity in America. The study framed regulations on marketing as an effective way to combat childhood obesity and gave recommendations at the family, consumer and market levels that could limit the influence of this marketing.

We all need to see obesity as a symptom of an unhealthy environment instead of as a personal failing. Our kids are constantly bombarded with messages that emphasize low nutrient food and encourage high calorie snacking, and the food industry has no incentive to change its message. We all need to demand that the food industry be held responsible for its marketing. Public awareness campaigns, open conversations within families and schools, and support for advocacy groups that are trying to reveal the deception in this marketing are all positive action steps.

We also must demand that government take action. Few were paying attention when Congress responded to food industry lobbying and blocked the FDA’s proposed voluntary regulations on food marketing. That needs to change. One tool is to better utilize social media to reach our respective representatives. If we are going to limit or ban marketing of unhealthy food to our kids, we need to bring this issue to government attention and make it easier for our member of Congress do to something about it.

We need to take action to limit unhealthy food advertisements aimed at youth. Perhaps we could even change the messages to advocate for healthy and nutritious foods, working with the food corporations and government to create and implement a solution that will benefit all. But that may be asking too much. I’ll settle right now for reducing food marketing aimed at our kids.

Betsy Gardner is a 1st year student in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at Northeastern University. The views expressed are hers alone.

Image Source: © 2014 Kellogg NA Co.