Proposed federal guidelines that would establish nutritional standards for food marketed to kids are expected to spark new debate on the role restaurants play in child obesity.
The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, a coalition that represents top federal agencies tied to food and health, has proposed voluntary guidelines for the food-and-beverage industry that establishes specific nutritional standards for products marketed to kids ages 2 through 17 — including restaurant foods.
The group represents the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It began examining marketing to children in light of increasing pressure from health advocates who point to the use of toys in kids’ meals and cartoon characters or clowns in television ads as contributors to the obesity epidemic .
The food industry spent more than $1.6 billion in 2006 alone to market messages to children promoting foods that are often high in calories and low in nutritional content, according to the Interagency Working Group, and surveys indicate that parents see “TV ads promoting junk food” to be a big part of the problem.
Under the proposal, marketing to kids should be limited to foods that make a meaningful contribution to a more healthful diet, or to reformulated foods that reduce the negative impact, such as those lower in saturated fat, sodium, trans fats and added sugars.
But the group’s proposal, which is in the comment period until July 14, is not a recommendation for regulation, but a voluntary effort.
In a statement in April when the proposed guidelines were introduced, the commission wrote, “The goal of the proposal being issued today for comment is to encourage a marketing environment that supports, rather than undermines, parents’ efforts to get their children to eat more healthfully.”
The guidelines, however, have not been met with support from the restaurant industry.
Opponents expressing comments included Focus Brands Inc., franchisor and operator of the Carvel, Cinnabon, Schlotzsky’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels brand.
Cara Baker, Focus Brands’ vice president of consumer product licensing, argued that the guidelines are “extremely vague and overbroad,” and would limit advertising on television shows meant for adults that teenagers might watch.
She also said it was troubling that the restrictions extend to 17-year olds, who are allowed to drive and work but must still be shielded from certain types of marketing.
“While working to address childhood obesity is an important objective, there is no evidence that these marketing restrictions would even have a positive impact on child obesity,” she wrote.
Restaurants offer options
The National Restaurant Association is expected to weigh in next week, but Joan McGlockton, the NRA’s vice president of industry affairs and food policy, said Friday there is plenty of evidence that providing nutritionally balanced options for kids is a top trend, especially on quick-service menus.
“Research shows a positive trend that restaurants are increasing their array of healthful menu choices for children, while the amount of food and beverage advertising to children has decreased dramatically in the past five years,” she said.
The NRA next week is scheduled to unveil a children’s menu initiative that will help steer parents and kids to more healthful menu options when dining out.
This week the Culinary Institute of America also launched a new website titled Menu for Healthy Kids: Fostering Positive Change in Our Schools . Though geared in part for schools, the website also offers information, statistics and recipe solutions for the foodservice industry overall, including shared best practices.
Olive Garden this week switched out milkshakes and French fries in favor of fruit smoothies and grapes in its kids’ meals, for example.
Jack in the Box recently dropped the offer of a toy with kids’ meals — a move, company officials said, that was not in response to outside pressure, or to legislation in two California counties that restricts the use of toys in kids meals. The San Diego-based chain also added fresh apple slices as an option for its kids’ meal.
On the other hand, some new players are getting into the toys-for-kids game in efforts to promote healthier alternatives.
On Friday, the Encino, Calif.-based Menchie’s frozen yogurt chain launched a new program offering kids a free collectible toy for every cup of yogurt purchased.
Amit Kleinberger, the 100-unit chain’s chief executive, said the toy offer is a way to deepen the bond with customers and differentiate the brand in a competitive fro-yo market.
It also promotes a product that Kleinberger contends is a more healthful alternative to ice cream, rich in probiotics, calcium and protein, with lower-in-fat and calorie options available.
Fanning the flames, however, is a new report released Thursday called “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2011,” by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that obesity rates increased in 16 states over the past year and did not decline in any state.
In 12 states, 30 percent or more of the population is considered obese, the report said. Four years ago, only one state was above 30 percent.
Researchers pointed to many causes, but among those specifically cited were the increasingly large portion sizes in restaurants, as well as food advertising that targets children.
In outlining various policy responses to the problem, the report said little progress has been made in ongoing efforts to set standards for the marketing of meals to children.
In addition, the report called for stricter regulations that would improve nutrition standards for school meals, as well as food and beverages sold outside the cafeteria in à la carte lines, vending machines and in school stores.