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Little Eyes Get Big Ideas About Food Ads on TV

Little Eyes Get Big Ideas About Food Ads on TV

The need for a standard set of nutrition criteria resurfaced in Washington last week, where the Federal Trade Commission hosted a forum on the effectiveness of self-regulation of food and beverage advertising directed to kids.

Today, 16 companies are voluntarily regulated by the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Four have committed not to advertise to kids at all, while the remainder only advertise products to children that meet “nutrition standards derived from authoritative and science-based nutrition guidelines.” Their food ads represent 71.3% of those that kids see on TV.

Members are required to submit the nutrition standards to the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which created the program. The criteria is published online and then independent monitors take to the airwaves to ensure members make good on their promise.

I trust that all the companies have lived up to their commitment, since Elaine Kolish, BBB vice president and director of the initiative, outlined for me a transparent monitoring system last week. One hundred products have either been reformulated or added to a member's product mix so they can be advertised to kids, she said.

But at a time when the Food and Drug Administration is considering a single set of universal nutrition standards for on-pack rating programs, I wonder whether basing the initiative on different criteria sets is the wisest choice, especially if preempting government intervention is a goal.

But that's not the only reason why sticking to one standard may be best. Doing so would also provide a more transparent way to present the program to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other skeptics of the self-regulatory approach.

Last week a new Children Now-commissioned study that was critical of the CFBAI's progress was released by Dr. Dale Kunkel from the University of Arizona. It found that 68.5% of ads by companies committed to the CFBAI and aired during children's programming are for “whoa” foods and beverages — or those that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say should only be consumed on “special occasions, such as your birthday.”

Dr. Kunkel used HHS' Go-Slow-Whoa food rating system for his research. It also found that 31% of food ads from participants are for “slow” products, or foods to “eat sometimes, or less often.” “Go” foods, such as vegetables that can be “eaten almost any time,” made up fewer than 1%.

Kolish was critical of the researchers' choice of the Go-Slow-Whoa system, which deems french toast “slow” and sweet cereal “whoa” without necessarily taking into account the syrup and butter that will accompany the french toast and the milk that will go with cereal.

“The Go-Slow-Whoa system is nutrition science made simple for consumers,” she said. “It's not good tools for evaluating change.”

If everyone were working with the same criteria there'd be little room for debate.

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