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Is junk food the next tobacco?

According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, the number (15%) of children ages six to 19 who are currently considered overweight has nearly tripled in the last 20 years, causing spikes in diabetes and low-self esteem problems. With consumers increasingly concerned over rising obesity rates, North American snack, beverage and fast-food marketers are starting to introduce better-for-you offerings - among them, veggie-laced potato chips - to trim the junkfood tags from the products.
November 22, 2002

According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, the number (15%) of children ages six to 19 who are currently considered overweight has nearly tripled in the last 20 years, causing spikes in diabetes and low-self esteem problems. With consumers increasingly concerned over rising obesity rates, North American snack, beverage and fast-food marketers are starting to introduce better-for-you offerings – among them, veggie-laced potato chips – to trim the junkfood tags from the products.

In reaction to the hefty obesity numbers, over the last couple of years many special-interest groups have become publicly critical of so-called ‘junk food’ marketers, who they believe contribute to the crisis with indulgent treats supported by huge marketing dollars. Kalle Lasn, founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Adbusters, a Vancouver, Canada-based mag that critically assesses media and advertising-related issues, says junk food will confront the same pressures that big tobacco has in the past, which will lead to government restrictions on advertising. ‘For many years, tobacco was the big pariah industry, and it took a while to wrestle it down to the point where it’s on the defensive,’ says Lasn. ‘I believe…junk food won’t be far behind.’

Despite the fact that chow isn’t in quite the same category as tobacco – in that it’s not a ‘killer product,’ according to Lasn – parents now recognize the relationship between junk food marketing and health problems related to obesity. ‘Parents realize there is a huge industry that recruits young people at a very early age, and that this kind of advertising pressure influences kids as they grow up,’ he says.

In some cases, parents are attempting to take back the nutritional agenda. Medical experts in Europe, for instance, are asking the EU to ban kid-targeted advertising for food and drinks, while in the ever-litigious U.S., citizens are suing McDonald’s again – this time blaming the fast-food giant for their stout statures. A recent lawsuit condemns the restaurant chain’s ad campaigns – and specifically Happy Meal toy premiums – for enticing young consumers.

Coca-Cola came under fire last year when 40-odd organizations from around the world banded together to rebuke its promotional tie-in with Warner Bros. feature film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. U.S. website SaveHarry.com invited visitors to sign and send author J.K. Rowling a petition declaring that ‘Coke and other soft drinks are JUNK and certainly not what Harry would want kids to drink.’

Susan McDermott, a spokesperson for Coke in Atlanta, Georgia, says the soft drink manufacturer responded with its own PR effort to ensure that the media published its side of the story. She adds that the objective of the promo was to give back to the community in that it included a program to set up libraries in American schools. ‘For someone to characterize that relationship as inappropriate and to infer a connection to the health and wellness of children is missing the point for the sake of sensationalism,’ she says.

Nevertheless, evidence suggests that Americans are trying to wean themselves off high-fat, sugar-laden drinks and foods. Numbers from market research firm Beverage Marketing found that U.S. consumers gulped down 54.3 gallons of carbonated soft drinks per capita in 2001, compared to 54.5 gallons in 2000. For the same period, bottled water consumption increased from 17.8 gallons (2000) per person to 19.5 gallons (2001). Plus, according to a 2002 survey by the American Dietetic Association, 38% of Americans say they have improved the nutrition in their diets – a 10% increase over 2000, the last time the ADA did the survey. Companies like McDonald’s and Frito-Lay are already venturing into healthy-eating territory.

North of the border, McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada invested heavily in its Lighter Choices menu this summer. So far, the lineup (including a veggie burger, a grilled chicken sandwich and salads) has performed well, accounting for approximately 6% of overall sales. ‘The response has been great,’ says Neil Everett, VP of marketing. ‘We’re finalizing our 2003 plans now, and there will be a significant focus on Lighter Choices with new line extensions.’

Last month, the QSR announced it would also cut back on its use of trans fatty acids (TFA) and saturated fats through the introduction of a new vegetable oil. This measure will be fully implemented across North America by 2003, and is part of McDonald’s global TFA reduction plan.

Similarily, Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay recently announced that it is eliminating trans fats from Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos, and it will debut Lay’s chips and Cheetos in ‘reduced fat’ options (25% less fat) in December.

In early 2003, Frito-Lay’s snack packaging will include nutritional and fitness tips from Kenneth Cooper, an expert on health and fitness and founder of the Dallas-based Cooper Aerobics Center (CAC); and a youth fitness program created by Frito-Lay and the CAC is in the works. The snack manufacturer is also reportedly toying with the notion of making potato chips fortified with vegetables like broccoli and carrots.

On the beverage side, PepsiCo has been mixing healthy doses into its recipes; in July, it unveiled Tropicana Pure Premium Healthy Kids juice with vitamins A & E and calcium in the U.S. ‘People are becoming aware of what they’re putting into their mouths, particularly with the obesity epidemic that we now hear about daily,’ says Baradenton, Florida-based spokesperson Christine Nickel.

One of the most successful launches in company history, Healthy Kids was promoted through TV and magazine ads that revolve around a poem called Children Learn What They Live by Dorothy Law Nolte. ‘The key message is that the juice provides essential nutrition for growing kids,’ says Nickel.

But do people actually want ‘better-for-you’ munchies? According to The Wall Street Journal, low-fat options such as baked potato chips and pretzels already account for 20% to 25% of Frito-Lay’s sales, and volume for those items is up 20% so far this year. Frito-Lay also comprised more than two-thirds of parent company PepsiCo’s profits last year.

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