June 14, 2007 -- Kellogg announced Thursday it would scale back its marketing of unhealthy products to young children, a move observers praised as a step toward shifting American children toward healthier diets.
The company, the world's largest breakfast cereal manufacturer, said it would cut the sugar, fat, and sodium content of food it markets to children under 12 years of age. Foods that don't meet the new standards will no longer be advertised to kids on television, radio, the Internet, or in print.
The company also said it would abandon lucrative product placements and school promotions for less healthy foods.
"We're taking these steps to address increasing concerns about marketing to children and further strengthen our commitment to responsible marketing," David Mackay, the company's president and CEO, says in a statement.
The move -- expected to be phased in by the end of 2008 -- affects up to half of the products the company markets to children worldwide, including Pop Tarts pastries and Froot Loops and Apple Jacks cereals.
The company said the food it markets to children under 12 would now contain no more than 12 grams of sugar per serving along with a maximum of 2 grams of saturated fat and 230 milligrams of sodium. A new nutrition information panel will be placed on the front of cereal packages.
The decision makes Kellogg the latest food manufacturer to agree to marketing curbs and improved nutrition standards for some of its products. Companies have been under increasing pressure to alter nutrition standards and marketing practices in an effort to curb childhood obesity.
General Mills announced a plan in 2004 to shift its entire cereal line to whole-grain content. More recently, 10 food manufacturers agreed to pursue new guidelines scaling back on junk food advertising aimed at children.
Kellogg was also facing a lawsuit in Massachusetts brought by a group of advocacy organizations and individuals alleging that its marketing practices were illegal under the state's laws.
The plaintiffs said they would drop the lawsuit as a result of the company's action.
"Things are moving slowly in the right direction," says Michael Jacobson, MD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. He tells WebMD that Kellogg's announcement is "substantial."
Children aged 7 to 12 see an average of 21 food advertisements per day, says Vicki Rideout, who studies children's media exposure for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Over the course of a year the exposure amounts to 7,600 ads, many for sugared cereals, she says.
Rideout calls Kellogg's announcement a "milestone" that would likely pressure other food companies to follow with similar actions. But she warns that it was unlikely to significantly alter children's exposure to advertising or their consumption of unhealthy food.
Only one-third of young children's television viewing is taken up by children's programming, Rideout says.
"This change alone won't make the difference, but this change in the broader environment is a step forward," she tells WebMD. "This is going to be a long process of turning around this ocean liner of advertising and what children eat and their overall health."
The company says it will curtail its use of licensed characters, typically from movies and television, to promote less healthy foods to children. The firm will keep using web sites for marketing but will set parental controls and establish time limits for young children using the site.
"We're actually going to create far greater restrictions in terms of kids under 12 getting on to those sites," Mark Baynes, Kellogg's chief marketing officer for North America, told reporters in a telephone conference call Thursday.
As far as television, the company's restrictions apply only to media that has half its viewership under 12. Young children watching shows targeted at slightly older kids could still see junk food ads, Jacobson says.
"Kids are still going to be exposed to advertising for not particularly healthy food, but they are going to be a little bit better," he tells WebMD.
Rideout says there was no way to know precisely how the move would affect the amount and nature of food advertisements kids see.
"The only way to know is to monitor what they do," she says.