The marketing of food and beverages to children has become a hot button issue. Federal regulatory agencies, under the auspices of the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketing, and the food industry, under its Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, are engaged in promoting competing voluntary guidelines meant to govern food advertising targeted at children. At the core of the debate is the issue of how best to educate consumers and whether designation of some foods and beverages as “positive” and others as “negative” is the best education strategy.

The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketing was established by Congress in 2009 and consists of members from the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission. Under the group’s proposal children would be encouraged through advertising and marketing to select foods that make a contribution to a healthy diet and contain limited amounts ingredients that may adversely affect health or weight.

All foods within categories most heavily marketed to children and teenagers younger than 18 would be required to meet two criteria of being healthful and lacking ingredients that are unhealthful or fattening, according to the I.W.G. The categories include breakfast 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” under the proposal, the food would have to contain contributions from at least one food group that includes fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra-lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds or beans.

Of significant difference to past food and beverage marketing initiatives, the I.W.G. proposal would restrict marketing of many products to children through television, magazines, the Internet and social media.

The industry proposal is a step forward from past industry efforts to voluntarily regulate the marketing of food to children. It creates uniform criteria that fill gaps in the system of company-specific nutrition standards. The proposal also recognizes differences among food categories and their role in the diet, and sets calorie and nutrient requirements that are appropriate for ten product categories, including juices, dairy, grains, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, butters, spreads and entrees.

The industry’s Advertising Initiative says one in three products currently advertised to children do not meet the group’s proposed criteria. Its proposed standards will require companies to change the formulation of products or they will not be able to advertise them after Dec. 31, 2013. Overall, the Advertising Initiative asserts that its new criteria will encourage the development of products with less sodium, saturated fats and sugars and fewer calories.

The Association of National Advertisers, an ally of the Initiative, has called the government group’s proposal overly restrictive and clearly intended “to place major pressure on the food, beverage and restaurant industries on what can and cannot be advertised.”

Concern is intensifying in this country over the rising rates of obesity in both adults and children. There are many causes of this serious public health problem, and it is not accurate to indicate the issue may best be addressed by making it more difficult to promote food and beverage products to children.

The voluntary guidelines established by the industry’s Advertising Initiative are a positive enhancement to the current voluntary guidelines and show a highly welcome willingness to make the appropriate changes to improve marketing efforts. The guidelines also ensure that the unintended side effect of consumers, whether children or adults, designating some foods as “good” and others as “bad” is minimized.

All food and beverages, when consumed in moderation and as part of a healthy diet, are good. That message, more than any proposed voluntary guidelines or governmental restrictions, is what both the public and private sectors must continually communicate.