Imagine your child’s teacher was distributing twice daily snacks, before and after lunch — maybe Snickers and PopTarts in the morning, Mountain Dew and fries in the afternoon. Now let’s pretend you complain to the principal, who tells the teacher, “Could you please stop doing that? You have until … five years from Tuesday.”
Would you allow that?
Yet that’s pretty much what the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies did last week when they announced food marketing guidelines. The agencies would like Big Food to refrain from marketing to children foods with more than 15 percent saturated fat, 210 milligrams of sodium or 13 grams of added sugar per serving or any trans fat at all.
But instead of announcing, “We have guidelines you must follow, and we’ll give you until January 2012 to comply,” the F.T.C. said, in effect, “We have voluntary guidelines we hope you’ll follow — they’re voluntary, you understand — and in five years we’d like you to voluntarily comply with these voluntary guidelines.”
We need legal action, not voluntary guidelines. The federal agencies that are involved with the F.T.C. in this request for less marketing to children — the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and the Agriculture Department — deserve credit for acknowledging marketing’s impact. If their suggested rules were followed, food advertising would be drastically different. “There’d be a large number of products they’d no longer be advertising,” says Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of nutrition and public health and the author of the book “What to Eat.”
But five more years, and then it’s voluntary? Five more years of allowing children to think that a diet of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, PopTarts, Doritos, 7UP and Chicken McNuggets is normal? By then, your five-year-old is 10; your newborn is five, and his or her eating patterns are set. Five more years — at least — of America bulking up? Who will pay for all that diabetes?
The F.T.C. is endorsing food that contributes to a healthful diet, but it’s mandating nothing, simply requesting voluntary compliance from a blame-the-victim industry that pushes ultra-processed, unhealthful junk. From fast food to cookies, snacks and breakfast cereals (many with the same nutritional profile as cookies) and worst of all, sugar-sweetened beverages, many of these products have these things in common: their slim “benefits,” if any, often come from chemically added nutrients, and they contain multiple forms of sugar, highly refined carbohydrates, chemically extracted fats and mystery ingredients only a food scientist or profiteer could love.
These concoctions are the poster children for what’s wrong with American food and in turn our diet, and about Big Food’s marketing strategies and power, which harm our diet, weight, health and budget. (Nearly every age group weighs at least 10 percent more than they did in the mid-‘60s, and our diabetes rate increased by 164 percent from 1980 to 2009, according to the CDC. See my blog for more numbers on this.)
Food marketing to children needs to be reined in, and it’s impossible for me to believe that Coke is going to voluntarily refrain from marketing to anyone, let alone the children and adolescents who comprise the largest segment of its market. One more statistic, then I’ll stop: the average male adolescent consumes 300 calories of soda a day, about 15 percent of his required calories.
It might help to take a quick look at how quickly and effectively our (often Republican!) governments acted against cigarette marketing: Five months after the famous 1964 Surgeon General’s report linking smoking to cancer, the F.T.C. required warning labels on all packaging and advertising. By 1971 President Nixon signed a law banning radio and television ads for cigarettes, a law that took effect eight months later. When big tobacco focused on children and adolescents (Joe Camel had become more recognizable than Mickey Mouse), billboard advertising was banned, to be replaced by anti-smoking messages.
There’s more, and some of it resulted from successful lawsuits, first by individuals and later by states’ attorneys general. Those same kinds of lawsuits will eventually happen as more and more evidence shows that junk food kills people. But from the time cigarettes were identified as unhealthy, government moved to discourage Americans from smoking them, saving tens of millions of lives in the process.
Obesity comes from excess calories and causes diabetes. Excess calories come from junk food. (Few people get fat eating real food.) And although this may not be quite the smoking gun that links cigarettes and lung cancer, there isn’t a serious independent dietary researcher or agency in the world who would claim that the typical American diet isn’t skewing numbers for obesity, diabetes and a slew of other diseases and needlessly premature death.
In this conversation, I frequently hear, “The difference between tobacco and food is that you need food to live.” This isn’t food I’m talking about, though, but food-like products. No one needs Pepsi or Whoppers; we aren’t born craving doughnuts or nachos.
Some industry members acknowledge the problem and claim to be working on it, creating smaller portion sizes and “healthier” versions of classic junk foods. Others talk about self-responsibility, as if their own marketing played no role in encouraging people to act in self-destructive ways. But no one in industry is interested in regulation; we may hear griping about the voluntary guidelines, but there must be a collective sigh of relief at what appears to be a brokered deal that gives the industry a five-year break-in period before … before what? Before either something else happens — like an even more business-friendly government — or the voluntary “regulations” take effect. And nothing happens. In the meantime, keep feeding the kids those Snickers.
Or maybe it’s time for some of those lawsuits.