by Marion Nestle
Sep 28 2011

Help! Rescue the government’s marketing-to-kids nutrition standards!

I’ve just gotten an urgent plea from Margo Wootan at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Please encourage everyone to write to President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and federal agencies to support the nutrition standards for marketing foods to kids.

As I’ve discussed previously, these were created jointly by the Interagency Working Group (IWG) of four federal agencies—CDC, FDA, FTC, and USDA.

Under intense pressure from the food and entertainment industries and their friends in Congress, the IWG’s proposed guidelines—voluntary, no less—are in danger of being withdrawn.

Doing that might help corporate health but would do nothing for public health.

CSPI organized 75 researchers (including me) to send a letter to the President urging support of the voluntary guidelines and expressing dismay at the campaign of disinformation aimed at getting them withdrawn.

Junk-food advertisers, in the guise of the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, have attacked the voluntary guidelines as an assault on the First Amendment, a point debunked by top Constitutional experts, and claimed that adopting the voluntary guidelines would result in job losses, based on a flimsy industry “study.”

….It would be a real setback for children’s health if the Administration backed down on strong guidelines for food marketing to children, especially given the transparently specious arguments of junk-food advertisers….Denying the science on food marketing and childhood obesity is like denying the science on global warming or evolution.

But the food industry is dug in on this one.  For example, a reader sent me this letter from Tom Forsythe, Vice President, Corporate Communications, General Mills (excerpts follow with my comments in brackets):

Your email notes that we have lobbied against the Interagency Working Group (IWG) proposal.  That is correct.  We have serious concerns about the IWG proposal.

Our most advertised product is cereal – and we stand behind it.   Cereal is one of the healthiest breakfast choices you can make….If it is a General Mills cereal, it will also be a good or excellent source of whole grains.

Childhood obesity is a serious issue – and General Mills wants to be part of the solution.  But if the issue is obesity, cereal should perhaps be advertised more, not less.

…You can be assured than food and beverage companies have studied every letter, comma and period in the proposal.  We know what it says, and what it does not.

For example, we know that 88 of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages could not be marketed under the IWG guidelines.  The list of “banned” items under the guidelines would include essentially all cereals, salads, whole wheat bread, yogurt, canned vegetables, and a host of other items universally recognized as healthy [Note: I’m not at all sure this is true–MN].

Despite the characterizations used to advance them, the IWG guidelines would not be voluntary, in our view.  The IWG guidelines are advanced by two of the agencies most responsible for regulating the food industry, as well as the agency most responsible for regulating advertising.  Ignoring their “voluntary guidance” would not be an option for most companies.

Regulation has already been threatened (even demanded) should companies choose not to comply – and litigation would inevitably follow.

The IWG guidelines also conflict with most existing government programs and definitions relative to food.  For example, many products that meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current definition of “healthy” could not be advertised under the IWG guidelines [It would be interesting to see examples].

Many products included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program fail the IWG standards, as do most products encouraged and subsidized under the USDA’s Women, Infants and Children Feeding Program (WIC) [If so, this is a sad commentary on what we encourage low-income mothers and children to eat].

Finally, your email suggests companies should focus on providing feedback via public comment.  We agree.  We have reviewed every detail of the IWG proposal – and we remain opposed, as our public comment explains.

My interpretation: if food companies are this upset, the guidelines must be pretty good.

Companies have the right to sell whatever they like.  But they should not have the right to market it as healthy or to kids.

Tell the IWG you support their guidelines.  Tell the White House to protect the guidelines.  Now, please.



  • I just got back from Sweden where commercial marketing to children is prohibited and the kids there–as well as their school lunch program–appear to be doing just fine:

  • Just sent my letter, tweeted, and facebooked. Too important not to!

    It took me a moment to figure out that the first link in the post will take you to the CSPI page to send the letter. Might be a good idea to put the link at the end, too?

  • Linda Duffy

    “Cereal is one of the healthiest breakfast choices you can make….If it is a General Mills cereal, it will also be a good or excellent source of whole grains.” – I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about this comment. Cereal happens to be one of the least healthy breakfast options. Highly processed and loaded with carbohydrates, cereal sets kids up for a blood sugar spike followed by a crash. Give them bacon and eggs!

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  • Anthro


    Surely Mrs. Obama has her husband’s ear on this?

  • Margeretrc

    I’m with you, Linda Duffy!

  • Cathy Richards

    A House divided is hard to lead without many compromises. As much (very very much) as I’d like the marketing to children stuff kept, public health care is more important. However the battles are picked, I hope they are won.

  • Childhood obesity problem more and more serious. Help children.

  • Anthro

    @Linda and Margaret

    I have no love for boxed cereal, but children do not need bacon and eggs every day–especially the bacon, loaded with fat and salt as it is.

    What they need is a variety of foods prepared at home. Oatmeal cooked in a pan, scrambled or boiled egg, whole wheat toast and fruit, a waffle now and then, and a bit of bacon now and again, sure.

    What they don’t need is to be harangued by industry to eat a constant diet of overpriced boxed cereal loaded with sugar and devoid of all the benefits of fresh fruit and other wholesome foods.

    The popular but unscientific idea that there is “good fat” needs to be put to rest. Bacon is NOT a healthful food. Eggs are fine in moderation. Children, like all humans, must not exceed their daily caloric requirements or they will become overweight or obese. Bacon every day is hardly a healthy alternative.

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  • em

    If you haven’t seen this already, a recent article in Forbes documents a pretty heinous ad campaign by Pepsi-

  • Margeretrc

    @Anthro, “The popular but unscientific idea that there is “good fat” needs to be put to rest. ” ??? Are you seriously suggesting there is no good fat? That we don’t need fat to function? How on earth are we even here–how is it we did not become extinct eating all those horrible fatty meats full of saturated fat, along with a few vegetables, and fruit when it was available for 99+% of our existence? Are you aware that it was the consumption of fatty meat loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat that allowed us to evolve the huge brain that we are blessed with? And how is it that cultures that base their traditional cuisine on high (saturated) fat coconuts aren’t dying of heart disease, diabetes, and other “western” diseases right and left? The idea that there is good fat is, indeed, solidly based on science–tons of it–and our evolutionary history. It is the idea that all fat is bad and that we need to eat as little of it as possible that is unscientific. I’m not suggesting children need to eat bacon every day–bacon, with its nitrates and nitrites and sugar–certainly has its own issues and does need to be consumed in moderation. But children would be healthier–and leaner–if they ate more eggs (one of the most nutritious and lowest calorie sources of protein there is) and other sources of protein and fat and ate oatmeal (what child eats oatmeal without sugar?), toast (most likely topped with jam–more sugar), and waffles in moderation only. Yes, children and others shouldn’t exceed caloric needs, but science–and my experience–says that when fed enough protein and fat, something their growing bodies need in spades, they won’t. It is much easier to eat too many calories when the meal centers around sugar, grains and starchy carbohydrates than when it is centered around protein, fat, vegetables, and fruit. That’s biochemistry–which is, last I heard, a science. Like all other animals, we are genetically programmed to effortlessly balance our calories in and calories out–without experiencing hunger or counting calories–as long as we don’t mess up the hormonal mechanisms whose job that is by over consuming sugar, grains, and other starchy carbohydrates. Children don’t NEED whole grain toast, oatmeal, cereal, or waffles, though it won’t hurt them to eat a little. They need (and will suffer malnutrition without) protein and fat. Period. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to add plenty of non starchy vegetables and some fruit to that protein and fat and they are more likely to eat those vegetables if there is some tasty good fat on them!

  • Margeretrc

    Ah yes, the CSPI–the same group that brought us nasty trans fats–making everyone switch to them from healthy, natural fats–and the inflammatory poly unsaturated vegetable oils.

  • Peter

    my response to letter from GM:

    Stop putting so much sugar and sugar syrups in your cereals, then maybe I’ll listen to you. Your ignorant letter has inspired me to take part in four more campaigns in support of IWG guidelines.