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Research papers

Taste Rules!: Food Marketing, Food Law, and Childhood Obesity in Canada

  • Charlene Elliott

Corps de l’article

In March 2007, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health released the results of an eight month study on the “epidemic” of childhood obesity in Canada. The report, titled Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids, begins by announcing that Canada “has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the developed world, ranking fifth out of 34 OECD countries.” [1] It cites the “distressing” fact that 26 percent of young Canadians are now overweight or obese. [2] For the first time in recorded history, the Standing Committee warns, our younger generations are expected to live shorter lives than their parents due to obesity.

This warning is certainly justified: excess body weight is linked to a range of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and certain forms of cancer. Overweight children must equally endure the psychological and social consequences that arise from a pervasive and serious weight stigma in society. [3] And, as the Standing Committee on Health clearly points out, the costs to Canada’s health care system due to obesity are staggering—totalling $1.6 billion annually in direct costs, and another $2.7 billion in indirect costs. [4]

Having outlined Canada’s “shocking” problem of childhood obesity, the Standing Committee on Health proceeds to detail the multiple causes of this public health problem and then to recommend a series of solutions. [5] The report is comprehensive. It outlines the biological, socio-cultural, environmental, and economic contributors to childhood overweight/obesity, and scrutinizes the promising practices in a variety of areas (including physical activity, promoting healthy eating, and addressing food availability and consumption). As a communication scholar, however, I find it fascinating to observe the degree to which the social problem of the obese child is rooted in communication and its solution, in governance and regulation. The problem, we learn, is what I would call an “excess” of communication—too many hours of sedentary activity in front of television sets, video games, and computer screens, and too many compelling advertisements for sugary sodas, fast foods, and junk food broadcast on children’s network television. [6]

This excess of communication has created what Brownell and Horgen have labelled a “toxic food environment” or what Swinburn et al. have similarly referred to as the “obesogenic environment.” [7] Whether toxic or obesogenic, the sense is that all of this food marketing and advertising, television viewing and video game playing—and mindless eating—has made our social environment dangerously unhealthy for children, and that governance and regulation provide an effective strategy for bringing things back into balance. [8] Given this, the Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids report discusses such things as mandatory physical activity programs and food preparation courses in schools, [9] the banning of junk food in schools, and the implementation of more effective media literacy programs. It also recommends the need to reevaluate both the policies surrounding nutrition labeling [10] and the regulatory environment surrounding food marketing to children. [11]

The recommendations, clearly, are expansive. Yet this article focuses on one pivotal form of communicative “excess”—the issue of food marketing to children—and the various modes of regulation that currently work to govern children’s “taste” in Canada. In particular, it discusses the cultural landscape of contemporary Canadian food marketing, and some of the problematic aspects of seeking legal solutions to public health problems, especially when it comes to children. The sticky point, as will be shown, is that the regulation of food and the semiotics of food sometimes conflict, and that the policies intending to redirect or curtail marketing are often porous, leading to an adherence to the letter, but not the spirit, of the law. First, however, a brief look at Canada’s legal environment regarding children’s food marketing is necessary.

Regulating children’s food in Canada: A brief overview

Canada’s regulatory environment pertaining to children’s food marketing is not a unified system. The province of Quebec bans all television advertising to children under the age of 13 on the grounds that such advertising is inherently deceptive. This ban has been in place since 1980, and advocacy groups such as the Canadian arm of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (among others) continue to lobby to extend it to the rest of Canada. In March 2007, Bill C-414—carrying the subhead “child protection against advertising exploitationhad its first reading in the House of Commons. [12] One year later, the Report to the Advisor on Healthy Children & Youth similarly suggested the need to “examine the option of banning the advertising of junk food on children’s programming targeted to children under 12 by 2010.” [13] In March 2008, the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada (CDPAC) presented parallel—but more expansive—recommendations from its Policy Consensus Conference on food marketing to children. CDPAC’s policy consensus statement affirmed that: “the self-regulation of advertising to children…is insufficient and was not designed to deal with the public health crisis of rising rates of childhood obesity.” [14] Asserting that a “regulatory void” exists “when it comes to protecting children’s health from the dangers of marketing unhealthy food and beverages,” [15] the policy consensus statement advocates creating “a regulatory regime that ends all marketing of unhealthy food and beverages directly to children” or indirectly through their parents or guardians. [16]

Despite these recommendations, the current system governing marketing to children outside of Quebec is based on industry self-regulation. Government legislation at the federal level such as the Food and Drugs Act and the Competition Act “prohibit advertising in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive to consumers”—but the actual marketing to children is governed by a voluntary code of conduct defined and enforced by industry. [17] Two sets of guidelines exist: the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children (which is imposed on broadcasters as a condition of license) [18] and the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. The Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children mandates that no station or network can carry more than four minutes of advertising per half-hour for programming targeted at children, nor can the same commercial be shown more than once per 30 minute children’s show. [19] It also recently introduced new guidelines for food advertising to children, to help ensure that “advertising to children in all media encourages responsible product use and that the amount of food shown being consumed in an advertisement does not exceed an appropriate single serving size.” The specifics, found in Clause 11 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children, suggest, for example, that snack product advertisements have to depict the product as a snack and not a meal, that children should not be encouraged to over-consume, and that advertising should not disparage healthy food choices. It is worth noting that the new guidelines do not push “pro-healthy” choices. Instead the guidelines suggest that the commercial message should not “discourage or disparage healthy lifestyle choices or the consumption of fruits or vegetables, or other foods recommended for increased consumption in Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating…” [20]Not discouraging and encouraging are two very different things. In fact, it is questionable whether this stands as a significant or limiting guideline at all, since the history of food marketing to children is not characterized by a disparagement of broccoli in the promotion of Pop-Tarts.

A checklist for advertisers titled the “Interpretation Guidelines for Clause 11 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children” helps to make this point clear. The “Interpretation Guidelines” for advertisers, Section 3b, asks specifically whether the advertisement discourages or disparages 13 food “choices,” some of which include:

  1. eating fruits and/or vegetables

  2. choosing vegetables and fruit prepared with little or no added fat, sugar or salt

  3. eating vegetables and fruit more often than juice from vegetables and fruit

  4. selecting lower fat milk alternatives

  5. selecting from whole grain products at least half of the time

  6. eating fish? [sic]

  7. satisfying thirst by drinking water [21]

Such “non-disparagement” guidelines are far from restrictive. It would be unusual, indeed, to see an advertisement for any product that contravenes “selecting from whole grain products at least half of the time.”

A second recent development concerning food advertising is the Canadian Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (Children’s Advertising Initiative), announced in April 2007 and implemented February 2008. Under this initiative—also voluntary and designed and driven by industry—16 leading food and beverage companies, with substantial fanfare, committed to either: 1) not advertise to children under 12, or 2) promote “healthier choices” and healthy active living to children. This initiative, combined with the new broadcast guidelines, “strengthens Canada’s already rigorous framework for regulating children’s advertising,” according to Linda Nagel, President and CEO of Advertising Standards Canada (the national advertising industry’s self-regulating body). [22] ASC also lauds Canada for having “one of the strongest frameworks in the world for regulating children’s advertising.” [23] And so the question arises: if this is the cultural landscape of contemporary food marketing in Canada, characterized by both the promotion of healthier choices and the “non-disparagement” of fruit and vegetable matter, what are the problematic aspects alluded to in the introduction of this article? Where, moreover, is the slipperiness in voluntary regulation that makes these policies suspect?

The first point pertains to the Children’s Advertising Initiative and its commitment to promote “healthier choices” and healthy living to children. Certainly, it is not uncommon for the food industry to promote activity as the solution to the obesity crisis since it does not undermine its primary goal to sell food products. Kellogg Canada and General Mills Canada, for example, support Active Healthy Kids Canada, McDonald’s Canada promotes the Go Active! Fitness Challenge, and, in one promotional effort called the Kidz Count Campaign (launched May 2005), boxes of cereal carried Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, and Snap!, Crackle!, and Pop! cartoon-shaped pedometers to encourage children to take more steps on a daily basis. [24] Such efforts to encourage activity allow food producers to affirm that they are, indeed, working to combat childhood obesity while still protecting the bottom line. It is also seen as a sleight of hand by some critics of current food marketing. However, the more opaque technique pertains to the industry’s commitment to promote “healthier choices” to children. On the surface, this sounds like a pledge that will result in advertisements for skim milk and baby carrots, but the eight companies who committed to this particular initiative have carefully selected their own criteria of what constitutes a “healthier” choice. For Kellogg’s, “healthier” choices are products that contain a maximum of 200 calories, no trans fat, and a maximum of the following per serving: 2 grams of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium, and 12 grams of sugar (excluding naturally occurring fruit and dairy sugars). For General Mills, products may carry up to 12 grams of sugar per serving, along with 2 grams of saturated and trans fats, 60 mg of cholesterol, and 230 milligrams of sodium for cereal and snacks—and over twice this amount of sodium for side dishes and main dishes. Dr. David McKeown, Toronto’s medical officer of health, grumbled that, using this criteria, “cardboard cereal boxes could be marketed as a ‘healthy’ food choice for children.” [25] But the more important part for the food industry is that, under this rubric, Kool-Aid, Reese’s Puffs cereal, Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Corn Pops, and Kraft Dinner all fall within the industry-mandated “healthier food choices.” In this case, the industry is adhering to the letter, but not the spirit, of the regulation—since Froot Loops and Kool-Aid are certainly not the types of foods children need to eat more of to improve their health.

Remarkably, the director of nutrition marketing for Kellogg Canada, Johanne Trudeau, justified the promotion of Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes as a “healthier food choice” by stating that the selected nutritional standards were “science based.” [26] This rhetorical strategy illustrates what Michael Pollan labels the “ideology of nutritionism,” the modern frame of understanding food in which the “invisible” and “slightly mysterious” nutrient becomes all-important as a mode of evaluation. [27] Under the ideology of nutritionism, foods are not valued as whole entities, but for their component parts—a process which allows Froot Loops to be transformed into a “healthier choice” because the cereal does not contain trans fats. Moreover, Trudeau’s reference to the food industry’s “science based” criteria for defining healthier foods underscores the complexity of nutritionism—in which healthier choices become the preserve of experts and nutritionists. In short, if Froot Loops are “healthieraccording to the scientific criteria, then who are we to question science? [28]

A second difficulty with the current legal regulations is that they are patchy at best. The Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children provides guidelines for television advertising to children; starting in September 2007 it also offered to provide clearance of children’s advertising on a voluntary basis for Canadian print advertising and Canadian Internet advertising. Again, this clearance is voluntary and not required. But what the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children obviously leaves out is a vast array of food promotion both within and outside of television advertising. This includes, for example, the use of product placements in popular shows that are not solely targeted at children (like the ubiquitous Coca-Cola in American Idol) and the existence of advergaming on Internet sites like Nabiscoworld.com in which children can play games like Double Stuf Oreo Cookie Racing League. [29] This game literally centres on a Double Stuf Oreo Cookie: the rules explain that players must collect icons, then “Rush to the Double Stuf Oreo Cookie table” to fill up the “twist, lick and dunk” metre. Or consider Ritz Bitz Sandwiches Sumo Wrestling, in which players get to select between creamy marshmallow and chocolatey fudge players. [30] Each “player” is one half of a S’mores Ritz Bitz Sandwich; the goal is to smash stomach first into each other to create a unified s’more. Even Kellogg’s promise to only promote “healthier for you” products to children under the Children’s Advertising Initiative seems belied by its Internet advergaming, where children can easily access Kellogg’s Fun K Town site (with games like the Pop-Tart Chocolate Chase Game, where the sole aim is to “Fill the bag with as many chewy, chocolatey Pop-Tarts before you get to the top of the mountain.”) [31]

Beyond advertising, product placement, and advergaming: The expanding industry of “fun food”

The most dramatic aspect that the current regulations overlook is the way that children’s food itself has been transformed, which has made the near singular focus on television advertising in the childhood obesity debate—along with the overarching question of whether or not to ban television food advertising directed at children—a bit of a red herring. [32] Whether or not to advertise to children is a significant question. But this, along with the discussions over the precise nutrient profile that comprises “healthier choices” (under the Children’s Advertising Initiative’s voluntary guidelines) or whether the advertising presents an “appropriate single serving size” of food being consumed (according to CAB’s new rules under Clause 11) overlooks the significant reality that children’s food itself has changed. Over the last decade, grocery food products specifically targeted at children have blossomed into a US $15 billion industry. While data is not available on the overall sales in Canadian supermarkets, American market research indicates that sales of foods specifically targeted at 3- to 11-year-old (American) children are projected to reach $27 billion by 2011. [33] These supermarket products offer a new category of consumables—fun foods—and encourage a particular style of eating. What is interesting about children’s “fun foods” is that, semiotically, the food itself has become both the advertisement and the entertainment, while legally these products are not covered by any regulation—whether federally mandated or industry driven—which speak specifically to the question of targeting the child audience.

What, precisely, are fun foods? I use the term to refer to “regular” foods (i.e., not junk food or confectionary), whose packaging and contents specifically and unambiguously target children: fun foods are indicated by direct claims or allusions to “fun”/play on the package, unusual product names, the use of cartoon iconography, and the foregrounding of strange shapes, unusual colours, or unconventional tastes. A quintessential example is Parkay Fun Squeeze Margarine in Shocking Pink and Electric Blue, which Unilever attempted to capture children’s attention with in 2004. (Parkay’s labels proclaimed “Buttery taste that’s Pink!” or “Buttery taste that’s Blue!” [34]). Other examples include President’s Choice Mini Chefs Bug-a-Licious Pasta in Tomato sauce, Betty Crocker’s Mystery Sour Fruit Gushers fruit snacks, Janes Kids (Buzz Lightyear) “Fun Shaped Breaded” chicken nuggets, and Yoplait Tubes Grab’n Go Yogourt (in “explosive” Babang and Kaboum flavours)—as well as a vast array of cereals, fruit snacks, crackers, and so forth. Overall, fun foods emphasize foods’ play factor, interactivity, artificiality, and general distance from “ordinary” or “adult” food. They rest on the key themes that food is “fun” and eating is “entertainment.”

A number of issues emerge out of the marketing of food to children using these types of symbolic appeals—a main one pertaining to the fact that fun food messages frame food as the distraction itself. The whole point of fun food is that food is fun, and it often does what “real” food ought not to do. Yoplait marketed special edition Tubes in which the tubes glow in the dark, for instance, while Betty Crocker sells Tongue Talk Tatttoo Fruit Roll-Ups that contain tattoos on the fruit snack for children to tattoo their tongues with. Quaker offers Dinosaur Eggs instant oatmeal in which small sugar eggs “hatch” into colourful dinosaurs with the addition of boiling water. General Mills’ Lucky Charms even has a new “Revealing Cloud” variety where the package tells children to “Pour milk and guess the mystery” (the marshmallow “clouds” reveal little pictures of rain, wind and mystery “question marks” when milk is added). Remarkably, only in the world of children’s food is artificiality actually foregrounded as a selling feature. [35]

But the real point of interest for the purposes of this article pertains to the fact that these types of products are growing exponentially in the supermarket—all while children’s advocates and policy makers are preoccupied by the robust debates over food television advertising directed at children. Fun food packages, from a regulatory perspective, must contain the same nutrition facts table (provided in both English and French) as required of all other packaged goods, but there are no special criteria for children’s packaged food products. And because Health Canada has yet to pin down its revised standards pertaining to nutrition claims on the front of food packaging (Health Canada is currently modernizing Canada’s management framework for health claims), parents are frequently confronted with a strange phenomena in which the overall “image” of a child-oriented product and its specific health claims radically conflict. [36] For example, General Mills’ Reese’s Puffs cereal is packaged using the identical colours and design as Reese’s confectionary. It even features a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup on the front of the package, from which the peanut butter and chocolate “puffs” of cereal pop out. Yet the package also contains three nutrition claims on the front of the box—“source of iron, whole grain, and 7 vitamins and minerals”—under the heading of “Goodness Corner.” Here, again, is nutritionism in action: a product with 12 grams of sugar per serving and marketed in direct association with candy (i.e., Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups) that presents itself as a “healthy” choice courtesy of the nutrition claims and the “Goodness Corner.” Similarly General Mills’ Chocolate Lucky Charms cereal is framed distinctly as fun breakfast candy (complete with chocolate and marshmallows), but also has four nutrition claims on the front of the box. Certainly, Chocolate Lucky Charms may be a source of iron and added vitamins (as the Goodness Corner attests), although something inherently problematic resides in placing numerous nutrition claims on a product that contains a stunning 15 grams of sugar per serving. Such claims might lead consumers to believe that the product as a whole is nutritious, which is automatically the case.

More regulation is not necessarily the solution, [37] but certainly a different form of regulation is required. From the vantage point of obesity and public health, it is worth noting that Canada now has more labelling on food than it has ever had, and yet, Canada’s obesity rate stands at its highest in recorded history. And so perhaps the answer is not necessarily more nutrition claims (or even better regulated nutrition claims). But when it comes to the broader issue of food marketing to children it is indisputable that the current regulatory environment is fraught with difficulties—and while it seeks to combat the obesogenic environment surrounding our children, we still have a long, long way to go.

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