Most parents are aware of the marketing efforts directed at their kids through advertising. Besides direct advertising on television and in internet games, packaging of food in a way that appeals specifically to kids is another way food is marketed to our kids. All of these tactics affect our kids’ choices (at least their nagging choices).
How does packaged food target kids?
Manufacturers introduce “fun” in their packaging. Specific colors, iconography (including cartoons), graphics, language and shapes (animal and cars) allure the kids, beckoning them to take a look. Packages offer free games, tie-ins with popular kids’ programs and films, and “lets have fun” messaging. Kids know immediately that this is a food playfully designed for a kid.
Professor Charlene Elliott from the University of Calgary, Canada, studied 367 products targeted specifically at kids to assess their nutritional value. The results appeared in the July issue of the UK-based journal Obesity Reviews.
Before we get to the findings, a few words about the method of this study:
• The 367 products were selected from a Canadian supermarket, and included only “regular” foods within the dry goods, dairy, produce and frozen food categories. The study excluded typical “junk food”—confectionary, soft drinks, cakes, potato chips etc., as these are expected to be of poor nutritional value, and don’t need testing.
• Assessment of nutritional value was done using the criteria outlined by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI): Healthy food should not derive more than 35 per cent of its calories from fat (excluding nuts and seed and nut butters), should have no more than 35 per cent added sugar by weight, and upper limits for sodium levels are defined depending on the food category.
Regarding the nutritional value of fun foods, the study found:
• 89% of the kids’ products studied were classified as having poor nutritional quality” (PNQ)
• Within the dry goods kids foods (including granola bars, cereal bars, pasta, soups), high sugar levels were the main culprit.
• Within the refrigerated and frozen foods (packaged lunches, pizzas), many products had high fat or sodium.
• Less than 1% of the foods specifically targeted at children in a Canadian supermarket are fruits and vegetables; the only “kids’ foods” in the produce section were small apples and baby carrots.
Nutritional claims abound
Fun foods don’t portray just happy drawings and cartoons. The majority of these foods (62.7%) had nutrition claims on the box. Examples range from the Smart Spot™ (a logo with a check mark in the middle, designed by PepsiCo, and displayed on those products from this company supposedly meeting nutritional standards), to phrases like “low fat,” “good source of calcium,” “trans-fat free,” etc.
The interesting finding was that among the 326 fun foods that were of poor nutritional quality, 202 (62%) had nutritional claims.
So while the nutritional claim of “low fat,” “no trans-fat” or “good source of iron” might lead one to think the whole product is nutritious, that isn’t necessarily the case—the product may be full of sugar, non trans-fat or sodium.
Another hidden message of health on products marketed to kids is the healthful physical activities the cartoon images are engaged in—many of the cartoons are depicted playing some kind of sport.
The strange world of food designed for kids
“Fun food products are no longer contained within the cereal aisle; they pervade the entire supermarket and are available for every eating experience (breakfasts, snacks, lunches, dinners). Fun food marketing suggests that children should be served 'special' foods made uniquely for them, that family meals should be reconfigured into foods for children and foods for adults, and that children's fare should be more interactive, more colourful, increasingly removed from the 'natural'.
All of these suggestions can create a problematic relationship between food and children, working to create a space in which children become accustomed to the 'unnaturalness' of food and learn to appreciate the value of food as fun, sport or distraction (instead of focusing on nutrition). As I discuss elsewhere, in consistently emphasizing a food's play factor, artificiality and general distance from 'regular' foods, fun food marketing can work to create a particularly unnatural relationship with food in children.
Food becomes framed as entertainment, and this entertainment is both premised on and emphasizes the artificiality of what is being consumed. (Remarkably, it is only in the world of children's food that artificiality is actually framed as a selling feature.)”
I totally agree.
The notion that kids need their own food is very wrong in my opinion. Beyond infancy, children don’t require any special diet. The same foods that are good for adults are good for kids, the only emphasis would be that it’s even more important for kids to eat nutritious food, as this is the time their body is growing, and their eating habits are formed.
From both the health and the practical point of view, I really don’t see why parents would make (or buy) one meal for their kids and another for the adults. There’s no such thing as “grown-up” food—there’s just good nutritious food for sensible humans, and since kids are smaller, they should get a smaller portion.
I often get upset by kids’ menus in restaurants. I think there should be an option to order a smaller, lower priced dish from the regular menu for kids—something like a half-price/half- portion for young diners sounds like a simple way to go. But the typical kids menu is often the same old French fries, hot dogs, butter-and-cream-drowned macaroni and cheese, as if that’s the only thing kids can imagine eating.
If we raise our kids with the expectation that food for them should be dumbed down to “fun food” with toys, how are they supposed to learn what good food is?
I find great pleasure in preparing and eating real food. I’m using the word “pleasure” and not “fun,” because fun in the context of food has come to mean the silly, artificial and superficial way to have a good time. Kids that grow up expecting food to have rainbow colors, glow in the dark, pop in your mouth and be shaped like Batman have no understanding of food, or its connection to the natural world and our health. I honestly believe they also don’t get real pleasure from their food; their meal is an extension of their entertainment.
Fun food usually isn’t nutritious or “fun.” The standards for nutritious food set by this study are quite minimal, and were met by only about 10% of the fun foods. Fun food also replaces the real joy a kid can get from helping make a meal from basic ingredients, of tasting food that has real food quality, and of connecting to people—understanding where the food came from, talking with the people who grew the food (farmers markets can be a real source of “fun”) and sharing the same meal with everyone in their household.
After all, what does Toucan Sam have to do with breakfast?