First Mom Michelle Obama said
to food makers recently: “If there is anyone here who can sell food to our kids, it’s you. You know what gets them to drive their parents crazy in the grocery store.”
We parents are quite aware of a TV ad when we see one, but marketing efforts go way beyond direct advertising on TV and internet games. Kids are exposed to slick marketing and a call for their eyeballs everywhere and especially where food is sold—manufacturers design food and packaging in a way that appeals specifically to kids
and affects their choices, or at least their nagging
These “fun foods” are very easy to recognize—let any toddler loose in a supermarket and they’ll spot them from a mile--it’s the rare kid who will pick milk, apples and baby carrots as kids’ food.
Food and beverage companies spend $2 billion a year on marketing food to kids. They have excellent reasons to do so: Toddlers have been known to sing the tunes and repeat the message after being exposed to some ads just once, and they’re likely to stay loyal to a brand forever.
Foods designed for kids usually aren’t nutritious
Foods marketed to kids have several “fun” design and message elements in common: Specific colors, iconography (including cartoons), graphics, language and shapes (animals and cars) allure the kids, beckoning them to take a look. Packages offer free games, tie-ins with popular kids’ programs and films, and “let’s have fun” messaging. Kids know immediately that this is a food playfully designed for a kid.
But these foods have something else in common: Unfortunately, most of the marketing efforts promote highly processed foods of low nutritional value
Professor Charlene Elliott from the University Of Calgary, Canada, studied 367 products targeted specifically at kids to assess their nutritional value. The results appeared in a study
in the journal Obesity Reviews
The study included only “regular” foods within the dry goods, dairy, produce and frozen food categories. The study excluded typical “junk food”—candy, soft drinks, cakes, potato chips etc., as these are expected to be of poor nutritional value, and don’t need testing.
The assessment of nutritional value was done using the criteria outlined by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI): Healthy food should not derive more than 35 per cent of its calories from fat (excluding nuts and seed and nut butters), should have no more than 35 per cent added sugar by weight, and upper limits for sodium levels are defined depending on the food category.
This is what the study found:
• 89% of the kids’ products studied were classified as having poor nutritional quality”
Nutritional claims abound, tricking harried parents to give-in to nagging
• Within the dry goods kids foods (including granola bars, cereal bars, pasta, soups), high sugar levels were the main culprit.
• Within the refrigerated and frozen foods (packaged lunches, pizzas), many products had high fat or sodium.
• Less than 1% of the foods specifically targeted at children in a Canadian supermarket are fruits and vegetables; the only “kids’ foods” in the produce section were small apples and baby carrots.
Fun foods don’t portray just happy drawings and cartoons. The majority of these foods (62.7%) had nutrition claims on the box
such as “low fat,” “good source of calcium,” “trans-fat free,” etc.
Among the 326 fun foods that were of poor nutritional quality, 202 (62%) had nutritional claims.
So while the nutritional claim of “low fat,” “no trans-fat” or “good source of iron” might lead one to think the whole product is nutritious, that isn’t necessarily the case—the product may be full of sugar, non trans-fat or sodium.
The nutrition claim is aimed at the gatekeeper—the parent—and gives us an excuse to go ahead with the purchase.
Kids’ food is a bad idea
The notion that kids need their own food is very wrong in my opinion. Beyond infancy, children don’t require any special diet. The same foods that are good for adults are good for kids, the only emphasis would be that it’s even more important for kids to eat nutritious food, as this is the time their body is growing, and their eating habits are formed
From both the health and the practical point of view, I really don’t see why parents would make (or buy) one meal for their kids and another for the adults. There’s no such thing as “grown-up” food—there’s just good nutritious food for sensible humans, and since kids are smaller, they should get a smaller portion.
I often get upset by kids’ menus in restaurants. I think there should be an option to order a smaller, lower priced dish from the regular menu for kids—something like a half-price/half-portion for young diners sounds like a simple way to go. But the typical kids menu is often the same old French fries, hot dogs, butter-and-cream-drowned macaroni and cheese; as if that’s the only thing kids can imagine eating.
If we raise our kids with the expectation that food for them should be dumbed down to “fun food” with toys, how are they supposed to learn what good food is?
I find great pleasure in preparing and eating real food. I’m using the word “pleasure” and not “fun,” because fun in the context of food has come to mean the silly, artificial and superficial way to have a good time. Kids that grow up expecting food to have rainbow colors, glow in the dark, pop in your mouth and be shaped like Batman have no understanding of food, or its connection to the natural world and our health. I honestly believe they also don’t get real pleasure from their food; their meal is an extension of their entertainment.
Fun food usually isn’t nutritious. The standards for nutritious food set by this study are quite minimal, and were met by only about 10% of the fun foods
. Fun food also replaces the real joy a kid can get from helping make a meal from basic ingredients, of tasting food that has real food quality, and of connecting to people—understanding where the food came from, talking with the people who grew the food (farmers markets can be a real source of fun) and sharing the same meal with everyone in their household.
I hope food makers will adopt higher standard regarding foods marketed to kids--I think they're starting to do so--but it’s really up to us parents to be the gatekeeper and to explain to our kids that Toucan Sam has nothing to do with breakfast.
I'd love to hear your thoughts!
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