by Marion Nestle
Apr 28 2011

At last FTC releases principles of food marketing to kids

The FTC released its long-awaited principles for food marketing to children today.  These are proposed principles, scheduled to apply to marketing to children age 2 to 17, to go into effect by 2016.  The principles are now open for comment.

Principle A: Foods marketed to children must make a meaningful contribution to healthful diets, and contain at least one of these food groups:
• fruit
• vegetable
• whole grain
• fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk products
• fish
• extra lean meat or poultry
• eggs
• nuts and seeds
• beans
Principle B is that the foods should minimize intake of nutrients that could have a negative impact on health or weight.  The key standards are:
• Saturated Fat: 1 g or less per serving and 15% or less of calories
• Trans Fat: 0 g per serving
• Added Sugars: No more than 13 g of added sugars per serving
• Sodium: No more than 210 mg per serving
I thought the original proposals were far too generous.  But the only difference between these proposals and those proposed a year or so ago is a slight increase in sodium from 200 mg to 210 per serving.  I can only assume that this  difference is just enough to include a lot of junk foods that would otherwise be excluded by these principles.


Recall the history:  In 2009, Congress specified that an interagency group was to set up standards for identifying foods that should not be marketed to children and to publish them by July 15, 2010.   That group came up with a set of recommendations similar to these but more complicated.

The July 15 date came and went, as I explained in a previous post.  Why?  Rumors were that food industry opposition got in the way.  As reporter Melanie Warner pointed out, weak as they may appear, the proposed standards would exclude a great many highly profitable food products.  William Neuman provided a detailed account of why the FTC wasn’t budging on this in the New York Times.  And the Colbert Report had some fun with the FTC’s delay.The food industry has consistently opposed giving the FTC more authority over marketing of foods and supplements.


What are we to make of this? In the light of this history, the FTC must be congratulated for its courage in overcoming food industry opposition.  The principles are supposed to apply to all forms of media, print and electronic.  If so, the food industry will have a much harder time marketing foods to kids.  That’s great news.

But here’s what I’m still concerned about:
  • The principles are voluntary. Nobody has to follow them.
  • Who is going to hold food companies accountable for following the guidelines?
  • Why do food companies get until 2016 to implement them?  Five years?
Can’t we do any better?  Of course, given my druthers, food companies would not be allowed to market directly to children at all.

Update, April 29: According to Advertising Age, the food and advertising industries are unhappy with the FTC proposals:
If companies were to comply with these proposals, the restrictions are sufficiently onerous that they would basically block a substantial amount of advertising.
  • Doc Mudd

    “Who is going to hold food companies accountable for following the guidelines?”

    The food police here and from cults like CSPI aren’t goin outta business are they? You’ll still be carping and hand-wringing and finger wagging and litigating and editorializing and protesting and petitioning and non-stop griping and energetically food-industry-bashing, woncha?


    “Of course, given my druthers, food companies would not be allowed to market directly to children at all.”

    Given my druthers, y’all would be always working from a position of documented scientific credibility and practical good sense with your nutrition recommendations. Heh, that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon, either.

  • Thankfully, the freedoms of free speech are alive and being demonstrated without restriction.

    Moving on:

    The American Marketing Association defines marketing as:


    Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large. (Approved October 2007)

    I like the ‘…value for customers,…., and society at large’ bit.

    What value do empty calories have for customers and society at large, especially where food is not scarce?

    And why would children be considered customers? Doesn’t society consider children as wards of social care until they are legally old enough to take care of themselves and make their own decisions, even if they grow up to trample upon freedoms of free speech if they choose?

    Isn’t it our job as responsible wards to look after the best interests of children and endow them with education so they can continue and improve upon cultural transmission and innovation? To take care of their fellow neighbors?

    Or is it our job to make them spend their pocket money on super-sized junk foods and to use them to extract every penny from their parents or careers?

    Get real Big Food, let kids have a safe, innocent childhood they can remember with fondness and not filled with bullying for being overweight.

  • Daniel

    In lieu of the FTC making any requirements, it would be nice to screen What Would Jesus Buy? for all kids (or maybe better yet their parents.)

  • For the record, here’s the science –

    Institute of Medicine Report

    American Psychological Association Report on Children and Advertising

    Children Now Report on The Impact of Industry Self-Regulation on the Nutritional Quality of Foods Advertised on Television to Children

    We’ll be releasing our statement in response to the FTC standard shortly….

  • My son just sent me this kids ad…pretty clever … … I’m not holding my breath waiting for change.

    Ken Leebow

  • KD

    13 grams of sugar seems high to me, this would include a lot of sugary cereals, snacks, and drinks

    don’t understand the concept behind voluntary guidelines that aren’t enforced… what is the point?

  • Pete

    A) Who determines what is “healthful”? FDA? The same FDA that recommended all those grains?

    B) Marketing to kids is ALWAYS bad. What you are marketing is irrelevant. I won’t go into why. Ask Susan Linn.

    C) Marketers won’t care. Too much money to be made selling HIGH FIBER FROOT LOOPS than they could ever be fined.

    D) Much like was illustrated in Food Politics, marketers will jump on the recommendations as marketing tools. Get ready for that list of “healthy” ingredients to be on the front of the box. Why do we insist on giving them more ammunition.

    My summation: Epic Fail. Marketers are already devising ways to cash in on this.

  • I’m curious – and I haven’t had time to read the guidelines directly, but how does this prevent the “part of a delicious breakfast including juice, toast and milk” dodge that cereal companies have been using since day 1? Can companies still just add preferred foods to the advertising for junk foods and be following the guidelines?

    At this point, most sugary cereals have less than 13g of sugar per serving, but many still qualify as cookies in a bowl.

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  • Joe

    I think the heart of this issue is a moral question. My morals and the things I value based on that code of morality will determine the things I do which includes what I eat and feed my kids.

    Therefore the question that must be asked is can the government legislate morality? Very often we say it cannot which may be based on what we value. In this case can the government legislate or even encourage certain personal and morally based decisions?

    Some will say I am making more of this than should be made but this is the real issue as far as I am concerned. When elected officials overstep their constitutionally mandated authority, which is the case with this type of regulation, it gives me the creeps. What will be next and why should a politician in DC have any right to regulate what I eat or what is advertised to me in my community?

    Finally if parents cannot or will not manage what their children eat then there is no way on earth the FTC or any other government agency is going to be able to do it. To assume they can is pie in the sky and a most serious waste of tax payer dollars.

    Concern for the health of our children is certainly a noble cause and I know of no one who desires that children be unhealthy. However just because one person values a thing or idea doesn’t mean that others can be coerced into that same manner of belief.

  • Nutty_Observer

    “…just because one person values a thing or idea doesn’t mean that others can be coerced into that same manner of belief.”
    I think our entire discussion here proves that statement wrong.

    For years corporations and advertisers have been working to convince the public that their products are not only delicious (after not eating processed foods for a year or more, you realize how overly sugary and really not delicious they are) but good for you (no explanation needed).
    And the public buys in.
    Which means parents buy in.
    Literally. For their children.
    So why not try to change society from the roots and get healthier food out there so that it doesn’t become a “choice” between junk food and health food, but a reversal of the current junk food favoring trend?

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  • In the 1930s, childrens’ minds were considered to be vulnerable territory in need of protection. So, no advertising to them! Schools were for academic pursuit. If a child took a project to school in a box, it had to be a plain cardboard box with no labels, lest a stray outside commercial message come through. In 2000 in California at a planning conference for schools, soft drink companies were literally “at the table” by invitation – gag!- as vested interests, no less. Now there are beverage vendors, cola advertising scoreboards, mandated channel one in classrooms including adverts – the list is endless. By 2030 I fear one of my worst nightmares will have come true- the day when children are all required to have corporate sponsors, and not leave the house without wearing jackets featuring corporate logos.

  • Doc Mudd

    “In the 1930s, childrens’ minds were considered to be vulnerable territory in need of protection. So, no advertising to them!”

    Oops, this example from 1924 took all of 45 seconds to locate:

    What sappy delusional nostagia to think kids have ever been shielded from advertising…”oh, back in the wonderfully wonderful good old days everything was just wonderful [swoon]”. Give us a break.

  • Lee Poe

    Of course marketing to children is morally reprehensible. Marketers do this anyway because they believe it’s not really them but the company they work for. Convenient then that corporations are legal fictions without morals. As long as Holy Profit is the driving force in human society it will trump morals almost every time.

    “Can’t we do any better?” Of course, but that would require a change in society where the overall health of children is valued higher than he individual profits of corporations. Until then, it will be a high-return world of pop tarts, sugar smacks and lucky charms.

  • Pete

    “I used to think
    That only America’s way, way was right
    But now the holy dollar rules everybody’s lives
    Gotta make a million doesn’t matter who dies

    Revolution calling
    Revolution calling
    Revolution calling you”

    Queensryche had it right in 1988.

    I assume all the deregulators are also members of the legalize it movement? No?

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