A political lesson on the power of the food industry

a man immersed in the trash, plugging his nose with money

There have been calls to ban the advertising of sugary cereals to children for nearly a half century, a product that Harvard nutrition professor Jean Mayer referred to as “sugar-coated nothings.” In a Senate hearing on nutrition education, he said, “Properly speaking, they ought to be called cereal-flavored candy, rather than sugar-covered cereals.”

The Senate committee “invited the major manufacturers of children’s cereals” to testify. And they initially said yes—until they heard what kinds of questions were going to be asked. “One cereal industry representative candidly admitted” why they decided to boycott the hearing: they simply didn’t “have persuasive answers” for why they’re trying to sell kids breakfast candy.

In the Mad Men age, before the consumer movement was in bloom, ad “company executives were more willing to talk frankly about the purpose of their ads and how they felt about aiming the ads at the ‘child market.’” A quote from an executive director of Kellogg’s ad firm: “Our primary goal is to sell products to children, not educate them. When you sell a woman a product and she goes into the store and finds your brand isn’t in stock, she will probably forget about it. But when you sell a kid on your product, if he can’t get it, he will throw himself in the floor, stamp his feet, and cry. You can’t get a reaction like that out of an adult.”

Sugary cereals are the #1 food advertised to kids. But not to worry, the industry will just self-regulate. The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative was launched, in which all the big cereal companies pledged they would only market “healthier dietary choices” to kids. The candy industry signed on, too. How did that go? They pledge not to advertise to kids, yet after the initiative went into effect, kids actually saw more candy ads. Take Hershey, for example—they doubled their advertising to children, while at the same time pledging not to.

The cereal companies got to decide for themselves “their own definitions of ‘healthier dietary choices.’” So, that should give us a sense of how serious they are at protecting children. They chose “Froot Loops or Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs, consisting of up to 44 percent sugar by weight”—those are what they classified as “healthier dietary choices.” What are their unhealthy choices? Turns out what they did is basically just set the limit based more on what they were already selling, than what might be “best for children.”

Now they’ve since revised that down to allow only cereals that are 38 percent sugar by weight. But, even if they were only a third sugar, that means kids are effectively eating “one spoonful of sugar in every three spoons of cereal”—not exactly a healthier dietary choice.

The Federal Trade Commission tried stepping in back in 1978, but the industry poured in so many millions of lobbying might that Congress basically threatened to yank the entire agency’s funding should they mess with Big Cereal, demonstrating just “how powerful market forces are compared to those that can be mobilized on behalf of children.” The political “post-traumatic stress induced by the aggressive attacks on the FTC led to a 25-year hiatus in federal efforts to rein in food marketing aimed at children.” But, finally, enter the Interagency Working Group, “voluntary principles…designed to encourage stronger and more meaningful self-regulation,” proposed by the Federal Trade Commission, CDC, FDA, and USDA, with the radical suggestion of not marketing children cereals that are over 26 percent pure sugar.

Not a single one of the top ten breakfast cereals marketed to children would meet that standard. General Mills shot back that such proposed nutrition standards were “arbitrary, capricious, and fundamentally flawed.” No surprise, since literally every single cereal they market wouldn’t make the cut. To suggest voluntary standards would “unconstitutionally” violate their right to free speech under the First Amendment—to which the FTC basically said: uh, let me get you a dictionary. Voluntary. How could suggesting voluntary guidelines violate the constitution? That’s how freaked out the industry is, though, at even the notion of meaningful guidelines. One grocer’s association called the proposed nutrition principles the “most bizarre and unconscionable” they had ever seen.

So, what happened? Again, agency funding was jeopardized; and so, the FTC called the interagency proposal off.

“At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight,” never losing “a significant political battle” in the United States. “We just got beat,” one of the child advocacy organizations said. “Money wins.” And it took lots of money—$175 million of Big Food lobbying—but apparently, enough to buy the White House’s silence as the interagency proposal got killed off. As one Obama advisor put it, “You can tell someone to eat less fat, consume more fiber, more fruits and vegetables, and less sugar. But if you start naming foods, you cross the line.”

“I’m upset with the White House,” the chair of the Senate Health Committee said. “They went wobbly in the knees. When it comes to kids’ health, they shouldn’t go wobbly in the knees.”

This article has been reprinted from the NutritionFacts.org website with permission from the NutritionFacts team. This article has been exclusively first published on NutritionFacts.org – a strictly non-commercial, science-based public service providing free updates on the latest in nutrition research.

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