by Marion Nestle
Dec 14 2011

Update on marketing to kids

I subscribe to The Lancet, and always enjoy reading its editor’s weekly Offline column.  In October, editor Richard Horton wrote about how  government obesity policy needs to be based firmly on scientific evidence.

And what is that evidence?

On this question, the evidence is utterly clear.  Thanks to the work of the best scientific minds in obesity research, the most reliable evidence shows that the government’s plan should include taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages, front-of-pack traffic-light nutrition labeling, reductions of junk food and drink advertising to children, and school-based programmes to reduce television viewing and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption (Lancet, 2011;378:1451).

If you care about public health evidence, that’s what it shows.  But doing these things goes against the business interests of food companies and they are doing everything they can to oppose such science-based measures.

In the U.S., the Sunlight Foundation has just released a report detailing the amounts of money food companies have spent on lobbying to block federal attempts to set nutritional standards for marketing foods to children (see previous posts).

Big companies such as Nestle, Kellogg, Viacom, McDonalds, General Mills, and Time Warner have indicated on official reports that they have lobbied on the controversial proposed guidelines; all together such companies have reported spending more than $37 million on lobbying this year.

The Sunlight report lists reported lobbying expenses (for example, Coca-Cola $4.7 million, General Mills $660,000).  It also points out that

…Over all public relations were handled by Anita Dunn, formerly communications director at the Obama White House, at the firm SKDKnickerbocker Consulting.

Anita Dunn is of special interest because of her previous position at the White House.  Now she’s working for the not-so-loyal opposition.  Marian Burros reported on this switch for Politico:

Dunn, who served as White House communications director, is a senior partner at SKDKnickerbocker Consulting, which is handling public relations for the food industry’s campaign. Switching sides isn’t uncommon in the incestuous world of Washington consulting and lobbying, and the food industry coalition seeking to scuttle the voluntary guidelines argues that they are actually enforceable regulations in disguise that could lead to billions in lost sales.

Dr. Horton’s comments in Lancet imply that the British government isn’t doing much better.

As for the European Union (EU),  Food Chemical News reported on December 8 that major food companies— McDonald’s, Burger King, Coca-Cola, Danone, Kellogg, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, as well as the European Snacks Associations—have just pledged to promote only healthful products on their websites aimed at children under age 12.

By “healthful,” they mean products that meet “better-for-you” criteria.  Food Chemical News cites a study suggesting that European children now see 79% less advertising of really bad junk foods on kids’ TV than they did in 2005, and 29% less across all TV programs.

The study did not say whether sales of those products were down too. If not, this could explain the willingness of companies to extend the voluntary restriction to websites aimed at very young children.

All of this would be much simpler for parents if governments paid attention to the research.  If they did, they would:

  • Tax unhealthy foods and beverages
  • Require traffic-light front-of-pack labels
  • Stop junk food and drink advertising to children
  • Institute programs to reduce television viewing
  • Institute programs to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption

Taken together, these might actually make some progress in reducing childhood obesity.

  • maybe it is a good way.If the aim is to champion coconut oil, perhaps some folks should be a little more specific.

  • Margeretrc

    Perhaps Dr. Hu doesn’t exonerate SFA, but he also doesn’t provide the requisite evidence–other than to say that it raises “bad” LDL, and that’s not evidence because it presupposes that all LDL is bad, which it may or may not be true–that it is actually harmful.
    And my aim was not to champion coconut oil, but to provide yet another piece of contradictory evidence to the tenet that SFA is universally bad. And, while there are definitely different kinds of SFA, I don’t see how you can indict some and not others. And that is my over all point. There is no consistency to the so called link between SFA and heart disease. There are cultures that consume rather a lot of SFA from animal sources and are fine, too. No consistency, no link. That is science.

  • Michael Bulger

    Your Dr. Hu:

    “Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review”

    – “It has been increasingly recognized that the widely promoted low-fat concept is too simplistic and not compatible with available scientific data.”

    ..Ok. This is what Margaret and I can agree on. But Hu uses a large sample population to draw distinctions between types of fats.

    – “It was estimated that replacement of five percent of energy from saturated fat by unsaturated fats would reduce risk by 42 percent (23–56, p < 0.001), and replacement of two percent of energy from trans fat by unhydrogenated unsaturated fats would reduce risk 53 percent (34–67, p < 0.001)."

    … and also to evaluate CHD and carbs vs. SFA

    – "Five percent of energy from saturated fat, compared with equivalent energy from carbohydrates, was associated with a 17 percent greater risk of CHD (relative risk=1.17, 95 percent confidence interval 0.97–1.41, p=0.10)."

    Hu concludes, "… the AHA major guidelines recommend the public to substitute unsaturated fatty acids from vegetable oils, fish, nuts and legumes for saturated and trans fatty acids. These guidelines, if followed, can have substantial potential in further reducing rates of CHD in the U.S. "

    Hu expresses that it is important to "communicate nutritional messages about the health effects of different types of fat…".

    Simplified, replace foods high in saturated fat not with refined carbs, but with foods containing unsaturated fats.

    It seems Margaret and I have come full circle. Again.

  • Margeretrc

    @Michael, I will check the links you posted. In the mean time, here are a couple for you.

  • Margeretrc

    I would point out, however, that your article–the second link–is from 2000. My links are to more recent articles–2004.

  • Margeretrc

    “Simplified, replace foods high in saturated fat not with refined carbs, but with foods containing unsaturated fats.” If that is indeed true, why do those who eat a low carbohydrate, high fat diet with no limit on SFA intake, consistently see improvements in cardiovascular risk factors?
    From your second link: A significant positive association between saturated fat intake and risk of CHD was found in two studies [5,6], but not in others [7–13]. A significant inverse association between polyunsaturated fat intake and CHD was found in only one study [11], but not in others [7–10,12,13]. The interpretation of these findings is complicated by small study size, inadequate dietary assessment, incomplete adjustment for intake of total energy, failure to account for trans isomers of unsaturated fats and lack of control for intakes of other types of fat and other components of diet. ” “Hu et al. found a weak positive association between saturated fat intake and risk of CHD,” “weak” being the operative word. Also, association is not causation. Who knows what could be going on there? In any case they are discussing associations between sat intake and CVD risk. The only part of the article that could be compelling–if the results were more consistent–is the discussion of randomized clinical end point trials.
    “In the Finnish trial, patients in the treatment group also substituted soft margarine for stick margarine. Thus, the reduction in serum cholesterol and CHD observed in this study was probably in part due to reduction in trans fat intake. In contrast, in the Minnesota study [67], cardiovascular events were not significantly reduced by the treatment diet, although serum cholesterol was reduced by 14% in the treatment group.” I’ve seen the results from the Oslo study in other publications. What they don’t say here is that by the end of the 11 years, there was no significant difference in all cause mortality between the treated and untreated group. In the soybean oil test, the reduction in CVD was not significant. Etc. Etc. Inconsistency rears its head again. I can agree that MUFA are good and should be a significant part of the diet. But animal fats contain MUFA, too. Lard is higher in MUFA than SFA. n-3 PUFA from whole foods is also important–agreed. But loading up on n-6 PUFA, I don’t know. PUFA are highly reactive species, especially at body temp. A high ratio of n-6 compared to n-3 such as most Americans get from high consumption of vegetable oils, margarine, etc., is associated with inflammation and all kinds of not so great health consequences. I’d rather take my chances with SFA, rather than PUFA or sugar or starch. But I guess we’ll see, won’t we?

  • Margeretrc

    Oh, I erred. In the Oslo study there were (8%) more deaths from all causes in the control group than in the treatment group after 11 years. Not a lot, but more. Point is, CVD may have been improved–in this study–but at the expense of what? As I said, PUFA are reactive and tend to oxidize other compounds that they interact with and, in the body, create free radicals. We know those aren’t good–at least in large amounts. Humans have been eating SFA for millenia. PUFA have been a large part of the diet for–forty years? The same forty years in which CVD has been increasing at alarming rates. The jury’s still out as far as I’m concerned. So I don’t think SFA should be taxed. Forcing people to eat even more PUFA than they already do could have unintended consequences just as encouraging people to cut back on fat has. Not sure any food should be taxed but certainly not any natural food that has been a part of our diet for pretty much as long as we’ve been human. “If saturated fatty acids were of no value or were harmful to humans, evolution would probably not have established within the mammary gland the means to produce saturated fatty acids—butyric, caproic, caprylic, capric, lauric, myristic, palmitic, and stearic acids—that provide a source of nourishment to ensure the growth, development, and survival of mammalian offspring.”

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  • Although I agree with most of the post, I do have a concern on the tax of unhealthy foods. I think far too long companies have been misleading consumers as to what is healthy and what is not. Ultimately it is up to the consumer and purchaser to make wise decisions about food choice, and being that we are discussing kids, it’s the parents responsibility. I think programming in schools is essential to the health of our youth, and I’m not talking “food pyramid!” I think the hands off approach of food education has too long hurt this country. Show some videos of pink slime!

    In relation to the taxing unhealthy foods: What is the end goal of this?

    Thanks for sparking this all too important conversation!