Strict food, beverage marketing guidelines proposed

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — A working group of federal agencies has proposed strict, but voluntary, guidelines for the marketing of food and beverage products to children. Under the proposal, which was unveiled April 28, children would be encouraged, through advertising and marketing to select foods that make a meaningful contribution to a healthy diet and contain limited amounts of ingredients that may adversely affect health or weight. The proposals are more limiting than the steps food companies already have taken on their own in recent years.

The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketing to Children (I.W.G.) was formed as part of the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act. The group included representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission.

“The proposal seeks to advance current voluntary industry efforts by providing a template for uniform principles that could dramatically improve the nutritional quality of the foods most heavily marketed to children — and the health status of the next generation,” the group said in a fact sheet on the proposal. “The agencies recognize that the goals for industry are ambitious, and that adopting the principles will require phased implementation over a reasonable time. Indeed, marketing that shifts from focusing on foods of little or no nutritional value — like cookies, candy and sugar-sweetened soda — to foods that are more healthy — like whole grain cereals, low-fat yogurt, and peanut butter — can have a significant impact on public health.”

Under the proposal, all food products within categories most heavily marketed to children and teens younger than 18 should meet the two basic criteria of being healthful and lacking ingredients that are unhealthful or fattening. Included categories include cereals, snack foods, candy, dairy products, baked foods, carbonated beverages, fruit juice and non carbonated beverages, prepared foods and meals, frozen and chilled desserts and restaurant foods.

To qualify as a food making a “meaningful contribution to a healthful diet,” contributions from at least one of the following food groups would need to be made:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetable
  • Whole grain
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk products
  • Fish
  • Extra lean meat or poultry
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans

With a few exceptions, such as the saturated fat and sodium naturally occurring in low-fat milk, foods marketed to children would need to meet the following rules:

  • Saturated fat: 1 gram or less per RACC (reference amount customarily served) and 15% or less of calories
  • Trans fat: zero grams per RACC
  • Added sugars: No more than 13 grams of added sugars per RACC
  • Sodium: No more than 210 mg per serving
  • Sodium content of bread varies widely, with a significant number of brands falling on either side of the 210 mg level. Under the proposal, the sodium level would need to be reduced further, to 140 mg, by 2021. Additionally, the guidelines appear not to allow even the 0.5 grams of trans fat that currently may be contained within a product while still calling the food trans fat free.

Achieving the changes will not be easy, the I.W.G. said, and it set a deadline of 2016 for products marketed to children to meet the guidelines.

“The Working Group acknowledges that this is an ambitious goal, but believes it is warranted by the urgent need to improve children’s diets and health and address the epidemic of childhood obesity,” the group said in the proposal.

Beyond limiting the marketing of certain foods, the I.W.G. said it hoped new products and reformulations would result from the plan.

“The Working Group recommends that, as industry develops new products and reformulates existing products, it should strive to create foods that meet both of these two basic nutrition principles,” the group said. “It further recommends that industry focus these efforts on those categories of foods that are most heavily marketed directly to children, such as breakfast cereals, carbonated beverages, restaurant foods and snack foods. The proposed principles, if fully implemented by industry for these categories, should lead to significant improvements in the overall nutritional profile of foods marketed to children.”

According to the proposal, the I.W.G. is considering two different approaches for determining whether a food product qualifies as meaningfully contributing to a healthy diet. Under one approach, the food would need to contain at least 50%, by weight, of one of the so-called healthy foods, such as fruits or whole grains.

Under a second option, “specific minimum contributions are proposed for each of the listed food groups. For individual foods, the product meets the principle if it contains the specified amount of at least one, or a proportionate combination of more than one, of the listed food groups per Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC),” the group said.

Under the second option, three quarters of an ounce of whole grain would be required for a baked food to qualify (based on grain content) for marketing to children and teenagers.

While food companies voluntarily have restricted marketing of many food products to children in recent years, the I.W.G. proposals would broaden the media included beyond television. Magazines, the Internet and social media would be included as off limits for affected products.

Comments filed in electronic form may be submitted by visiting:
https://ftcpublic.commentworks.com/ftc/foodmarketedtochildreniwg.

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