Big Food Cuts the Fat in Advertising to Kids

Companies deliver on commitment to adopt stricter nutrition criteria

Big food advertisers, often vilified for contributing to America’s obesity epidemic, have made good on their promise to cut the fat, salt and sugar in 171 products that are marketed to kids.

As part of an industry-wide commitment to only advertise healthy food to children, 18 companies including Campbell Soup Co., The Dannon Co., General Mills, Kellogg, Pepsi and Kraft adopted category-specific uniform nutrition criteria, which went into effect at the end of 2013 and allows for comparison of food values across products and brands. The new criteria are stronger than the individual nutrition criteria used by each company.

Though not every recipe for every food product advertised to children under 12 was able to change to meet the new criteria, the companies have pledged not to advertise those products to children until they do. Some companies simply cut brands from their product lines.

For example, General Mills reduced sugar in its Yoplait Go-Gurt yogurts by 10 percent and calories by 14 percent. ConAgra Foods developed six new varieties of Chef Boyardee canned pastas, and removed other varieties. Kellogg’s reduced sugar in Frosted Flakes by 9 percent, from 11 to 10 grams.

Five companies continued their pledge not to advertise to children under 12 including The Coca-Cola Co., Ferrero USA, The Hershey Co., Hillshire Brands Co. and Mars, Inc.

The food industry has come a long way from three years ago when the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies put pressure on the big players to adopt government-crafted nutrition guidelines for advertising to children. After a long debate, the food industry—through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus)—came up with its own guidelines and has since won praise for its efforts from First Lady Michelle Obama and the FTC.

Even one of big food’s biggest critics, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recognized the industry’s progress in cutting the fat, finding that 16 of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies removed 6.4 trillion calories from the marketplace in 2012, compared to 2007, exceeding their pledge to remove one trillion calories by 2012. Of the 16 companies included in the RWJF analysis, 13 are members of the Cfbai, which was formed in 2007.

Despite the progress food companies have made and reports that obesity rates have come down in some cities, criticism of big food’s hold on our food obsessions isn’t going to stop. There are some that believe there should be no advertising to kids at all.

“There’s never been shown a causal link between obesity and advertising,” said Elaine Kolish, Cfbai director and vp of the Cbbb. “This should give policymakers confidence that self-regulation is working and continues to be a dynamic program. This is a good place to work from in the future.”

Food companies are finding that cutting the fat, sugar and salt from products to meet consumer demand for lower-calorie foods is good business. A Hudson Institute study found that lower-calorie products had four times the sales growth of other foods and beverages. "The food companies that get this are acting in their shareholders' best interests, not just in consumers' best interests. A crucial way to accelerate a decline in the national obesity rate is to show food companies where the growth is," said Hank Cardello, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute.

Formed in 2007, the Cfbai has grown from 10 to 18 participants, and has expanded its voluntary food guidelines program to include advertising on new and emerging media like smart phones and children’s video games.