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Voluntary, for Now continued...

But the report calls on the food industry to do much more to voluntarily shift its advertising to promoting healthier foods and to alter the content of television spots aimed at minors. If it fails to do so within two years, "Congress should enact legislation mandating the shift on both broadcast and cable television," it states.

Experts also call on marketers to come up with a common national system for clearly identifying healthier foods for consumers. Companies should also limit licensing of popular cartoon characters for use in the sale of healthier foods to younger children.

Consumer groups applauded the report, saying it validates years of efforts aimed at getting marketers to alter what they see as billions of dollars of relentless messages promoting unhealthy food choices.

The report "marks the beginning of the end of junk-food marketing to kids," Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says in a statement. "The report sends a clear signal to food company executives and advertisers that the industry needs to completely rethink the way they do business."

Industry Reaction

Industry groups largely rejected the findings, saying that no strong evidence links advertising to obesity in kids and that marketing of junk food is on the decline.

"The shift is happening. It's happening today," says Richard Martin, chief spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "Industry is already responding to these issues. We're interested because consumers are increasingly interested in healthier foods."

Martin called the committee's claim that television advertising was directly linked to childhood obesity "specious."

A report issued by the Federal Trade Commission shows that child-targeted food advertising on television has dropped substantially in the last several years.

But the IOM report warns of a shift to product placements, games mixing entertainment with product exposure, and so-called "stealth marketing" practices.

Those strategies are mostly outside the purview of an industry-sponsored group set up to monitor children's advertising on television. IOM experts called on industry to expand funding and jurisdiction of the group, known as the Children's Advertising Review Unit.

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