Michelle Obama has made it her mission to solve our nation’s childhood obesity crisis through collaborative efforts of schools, communities, parents, and even the food industry. When talking about the goals of her Let’s Move campaign, the First Lady specifically called on big food and beverage companies to do their part to help reverse childhood obesity. She explained, “This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy. It’s about producing products that actually are healthy – products that can help shape the health habits of an entire generation.” She asked food marketers to use their portfolio of advertising skills to benefit children’s health and wellbeing by making “good food cool.”
Almost a month later, my impression is that food companies have seemingly ignored this call-to-action from the White House. “This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy,” as the First Lady noted, yet that is exactly what I see. Take, for example, a Pop Tarts advertisement I saw in an issue of People magazine this weekend. It boldly proclaims that the highly processed pastries are “Baked with Real Fruit,” giving the false impression that a) Pop Tarts contain a substantial amount of “real” fruit and b) are therefore healthy to serve to children. A quick glance at the nutrition label would inform you otherwise. The first five ingredients are enriched flour, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and soybean and palm oil – not fruit. Of course, if I had had my magnifying glass with me I would have seen the miniscule font which read “Filling made with equal to 10% fruit.” And by fruit they actually mean dried fruit, which is strange because I don’t see any images of dried fruit in the ad. Instead I see bold images of what I consider “real” fruit. I certainly feel deceived, don’t you? This is exactly the kind of marketing that has led to such confusion about what is healthy. It is exactly the type of marketing that needs to stop. If it persists, the government should consider taking firmer actions to regulate it.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like we’ve made much progress. Let’s use Post Cereal as an example. Post just introduced a new cereal to its Pebbles line-up called, drum roll please… Cupcake Pebbles ! Yes, you read that right – cupcake, as in the special occasion sweet that you serve to children on their birthday (I’m still trying to get over the initial shock). Post claims that Cupcake Pebbles is “The first cupcake cereal ever!” And hopefully it’s the last. There is a good reason for that Post: people do not eat cupcakes for breakfast, nor should they start, including if it comes in the form of speckled, “cake” flavored rice puffs mistakenly placed in the cereal aisle. Post describes its newest product as a “wholesome,” low-fat and cholesterol free cereal that is a “Party in a box!” Maybe they will throw a party when they learn that it is now the new number one worst cereal nutritionally according to Cereal Facts . With 11g of sugar, 200mg of sodium and 0g of fiber per serving, Cupcake Pebbles has a Nutrition Profiling Index Score of 26, placing it ahead of Quaker Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries and Kellogg Chocolate Peanut Butter Corn Pops as the absolute worst cereal nutritionally. The First Lady calls for the production of healthful products that are the best nutritionally, and instead we get the absolute worst.
I realize that these are only two recent examples of terrible food marketing and product introductions. There certainly may be good marketing for good products made for children that I just haven’t seen. And I hope that is the case, because if these are any indication of what is to come in the world of food and food marketing, the fight against childhood obesity may very well be a losing battle. We the public need to speak up with our mouths and our money and let big food companies know that this is unacceptable; that we won’t tolerate deceptive advertising and that we demand good products that will enhance rather than harm our health.