Recipe for childhood obesity: Stir in sugar, combine thoroughly with food advertising

August 1, 2005

An epidemic of obesity is raging in the United States and children are catching the disorder at an alarming rate. According to the 2005 edition of America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-being ( http://www.childstats.gov/americaschildren/), a biennial compendium from the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, the percentage of children between 6 and 18 years old who are overweight increased from 6% in the period 1976-1980 to 16% in 1999-2002. Black children, non-Hispanic girls, and Mexican-American boys are at particularly high risk. And the incidence of hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes rises with the poundage.

There is no shortage of culprits, but one obvious one is advertising of high-calorie foods targeted to children. Case in point: General Mills has announced a "Choose breakfast" television campaign-10-second spots that will run during children's shows. The campaign promotes "health benefits" of such breakfast cereals as Trix, Cocoa Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and other sugary General Mills products and features children who claim to have been energized by eating breakfast. Pushing the pitch one step further, boxes of these breakfast cereals feature a "fitness squad" of characters (think Lucky Charms leprechaun) advising children on how good breakfast is for them.

Manufacturers are facing pressure to limit this kind of advertising-and not just for breakfast cereals. The Federal Trade Commission recently held a conference on the subject, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, has appointed a task force to investigate proposed "voluntary" guidelines for advertisements directed toward children. Regulatory legislation is being proposed, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to put "tobacco-style" labels on beverages containing more than 13 g of sugar in a 12-oz serving. (According to the Center, a can of "Classic" Coca-Cola has 39 g of sugar.)