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The Walt Disney Co. is announcing today that it plans to advertise only healthier foods to kids on its TV channels, radio station and website. Disney says it’s the first major media company to set a standard for food advertising on kid-focused TV programming.
By 2015, all food and beverage products that are advertised, promoted or sponsored on the Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior, Radio Disney, Disney.com and Saturday morning programming for kids on ABC-owned stations (Disney owns ABC) will have to meet the company’s nutrition criteria for limiting calories and reducing saturated fat, sodium and sugar.
Many foods, such as prepackaged lunches, fruit drinks, candy and snack cakes, won’t make the cut. The nutrition criteria were created by experts to reflect the government’s dietary guidelines.
“Parents can be confident that foods associated with Disney characters or advertised on Disney platforms meet our new, healthier nutrition guidelines,” Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of Disney said in a statement.
The company says it’s already working with major food companies to reformulate products so they can be advertised during children’s programming.
The first lady and leading national nutrition experts hope other companies follow suit. Michelle Obama, who is attending the announcement today in Washington, D.C., said in a statement, “This new initiative is truly a game changer for the health of our children. … With this new initiative, Disney is doing what no major media company has ever done before in the U.S.— and what I hope every company will do going forward. When it comes to the ads they show and the food they sell, they are asking themselves one simple question: ‘Is this good for our kids?’ “
“This is landmark, because a major media company is taking responsibility for what food they advertise to children,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington D.C.-based consumer group. “This should be a real wake-up call to Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network to do the same.”
For years, nutrition experts have called for sweeping changes in the marketing of foods and beverages to children. They objected to kids being bombarded with ads for fast food, snacks, sugary cereals and other junk food on TV and websites. Food and beverage companies spend about $2 billion a year on advertising and production promotion targeted at young consumers, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Wootan says Disney’s nutrition guidelines will get rid of advertising for “the worst junk food — candy, snack cakes, sugary drinks.”
But the company will still be able to advertise “better-for-you versions of products that are not perfectly nutritious. There are still going to be SpaghettiOs and things like that in the mix.”
Under the new Disney nutrition standards, breakfast cereals that are advertised will have to contain fewer than 10 grams of sugar in a serving, Wootan says. “That’s a good step forward, but it’s not ideally nutritious. That’s about the amount of sugar in three Chips Ahoy cookies.”
Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, says Disney is making this move “at perhaps some peril to their revenues, so that’s all the more reason why we should commend them. These self-imposed restrictions will be good for kids and empower parents.”
Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, says, “This is a significant advance by Disney. With their reach and credibility, the tight nutrition standards they have set for specially designated foods will touch millions of children.”
Food marketing is really “important because it shapes the way kids expect to be fed,” Wootan says. “If we don’t deal with food marketing to kids, we don’t have any chance of addressing childhood obesity.”
Currently, a third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, putting them at a greater risk for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and other serious health problems.
Keith Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York who worked with Disney on its new nutrition standards, says, “Parents are hungry for ways to help their kids eat better. Kids want food that’s fun and tastes good. These guidelines bring parents and kids together.”
James Hill, executive director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at University of Colorado, who also consulted with Disney on the new guidelines, says, “Most of the foods they are going to be advertising are good for kids and families to eat. Our goal was to give people nutrition advice that is useful today.”
Disney’s latest moves build on actions the company has taken over the past few years. In 2006, Disney introduced nutrition guidelines for food products promoted with company characters. At its theme parks, Disney began offering healthier kids’ meals, serving carrots and other vegetables and fruits and low-fat milk at meals as the default choice, instead of fries and soft drinks. The parks also offer fruit and vegetables at food venues.
As part of its latest changes, Disney is:
•Introducing the Mickey Check, a symbol that food and beverage products and menu items can carry if they meet the company’s nutrition standards.
•Reducing the level of sodium by 25% in well-balanced kids’ meals served at its parks by 2013 and introducing new kids’ breakfast meals that meet the nutrition guidelines.
•Expanding its offering of fruits and vegetables to 350 of 400 food venues in its domestic parks by 2013.