The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has issued a new set of new guidelines to the US food industry and media, proposing that basic nutritional thresholds should determine whether products are suitable for marketing to children.
Annual spend on food marketing to children has more than doubled in the last 10 years from $7 billion to $15 billion. Meanwhile, child obesity rates have doubled since the early 1970s according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with around 15 percent of children and adolescents now overweight.
In an ideal world, the CSPI would like to see only healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables and wholegrain products marketed to children, but in reality its guidelines are considerably broader.
"We are unlikely to see our dream scenario come to pass," CSPI spokesperson Jeff Cronin told NutraIngredientsUSA.com. "The object of the exercise is to come up with guidelines that the food industry can live with."
They suggest that foods marketed to children should provide some positive nutritional benefit and come in reasonable portion sizes.
Less than 30 percent of the total calories should be from fat (excluding fat from nuts and seeds), less than 10 percent should come from saturated and trans fat and less than 25 percent from added sugars.
Snacks should contain no more than 150mg of sodium per serving, no more than 480 mg per serving for soups, pastas, meats and main dishes and no more than 600 mg for meals.
Drinks marketed to children should contain at least 50 percent fruit juice and no added caloric sweeteners and milk drinks, included flavored milks, should be low-fat or fat free.
Both the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) and the American Beverage Association have issued statements in response to the CSPI's guidelines, drawing attention to their members compliance with the industry's own self-regulatory body, the Children's Advertising Review Unit.
"There is no question that obesity is a serious societal issue with major health implications but by narrowly focusing on advertising and marketing, CSPI misses the point," said the GMA.
"Effective solutions must incorporate sound nutrition, increased physical activity, consumer and parent education, and community support. Above all, the focus should be on giving parents the information they need to ensure their children eat a nutritionally-balanced diet and get the right amount of physical activity."
But Cronin said: "Trade associations in Washington are reflexively opposed to anything that inconveniences the companies that pay their bills. The current self-regulating guidelines have nothing to do with nutrition."
In May 2004 the CSPI published the results of a survey of vending machines in American schools, which found that 75 percent of drinks and 85 percent of snacks sold are of poor nutritional value.
Its guidelines were compiled with input from academics, the government and the industry but compliance will be voluntary.
"If the food industry were to adopt them, it would be a major victory," said Cronin.
He added that a handful of companies have already shown a willingness to address nutritional issues relating to products marketed to children, including Frito-Lay and Kraft.
Kraft's product portfolio has included a range of fat- and sugar-free products for some time and the company has just announced the expansion of its alliance with The South Beach Diet, which will see a wide variety of branded products on sale from spring 2005.
In February 2004 Frito-Lay launched Rold Gold Heartzels Pretzels, which meet the American Heart Association's "Heart-check mark" guidelines; they contain no saturated fat or cholesterol and less sodium than regular pretzels.
The previous year Frito-Lay began using corn oil in its Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos snacks, meaning that all its brands now contain zero grams of trans fat. It also changed the Nutrition Facts panel on the back of packaging to include a trans fat content line - a measure which the FDA will make mandatory next year.