Saturday, 6 November 2010

Toying with children’s health

Anna Glayzer, Food and Nutrition Programme Officer, says the ban on 'Happy Meal' toys with junk food is a small but important move.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave preliminary approval to banning the giving away of toys with Happy Meals and similar fast food meals aimed at kids. The final vote is due next week, and though the mayor is threatening to veto the measure, the majority obtained in the vote means that the board can overturn the mayor’s veto.  If passed, the measure will come into effect in December 2011.

In fact, McDonald’s and the like have not actually been banned from giving away toys per se, it’s more that, if they do give away toys, it must be with meals that meet a set of minimum nutritional standards equivalent to the type of nutrient profiling model we have seen in legislation dealing with junk food marketing in other parts of the world.

Meals that allow toys
In order to merit a toy, a meal must contain less than 600 calories, have less than 1.6g of salt and from which less than 35 calories are derived from fat (less than 10 from saturated fat) unless that fat comes from nuts, seeds, eggs or low fat cheese.  Furthermore, any meal accompanied by a toy must contain at least half a cup of fruit and at least three quarters of a cup of vegetables or, if it is a breakfast meal, at least half a cup of fruit or vegetables.

Naturally the move has drawn complaints from fast food restaurants (with McDonald’s leading the fight) and cries of ‘nanny state’, and, ‘leave the parenting to the parents’ from some sections of the public.

Food marketing works
As a food campaigner at CI and elsewhere I have heard these arguments numerous times. The point about marketing to children is this:  It works.  If it didn’t work, quite simply, companies would not spend the money that they do on doing it.  In 2006 in the US, 10 fast food chains spent $360 million on the purchase of toys to give away with children’s meals.  Last year, McDonald’s spent $1.97 billion on advertising. That is just one company.

To put it in perspective, the World Health Organization’s entire annual budget for the promotion of health and development, and the prevention of risk factors for health conditions associated with use of tobacco, alcohol, drugs and other psychoactive substances, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and unsafe sex is $0.16 billion. That is a lot of risk factors.

Children are the most credulous consumers, and the messages they receive about diet and nutrition come overwhelmingly from companies that sell high fat, salt and sugar foods, and whose sole purpose is to sell more. They have a highly developed and increasingly sophisticated set of tools with which to do this, effectively bypassing parents and other dietary influences.  Any move that counters this imbalance in any small way is to be welcomed. What do you think? Leave your comments below.

Fried and Tested
Read CI's report on the marketing of fast food to children Fried and Tested.

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