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Kids Nutrition and the Power of Packaging

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP

September 26, 2016​

As a primary care pediatrician and registered dietitian, I have a lot of conversations with patients and their families around healthy nutrition. One popular topic is hunger and mindful eating, or being aware of the motivations behind our food choices.

The conversation often begins with a simple question: "What are some reasons why people eat?" Of course, everyone says "hunger." Then the list continues – convenience or temptation ("the food is there"), cravings, social gatherings, boredom, sadness. On this day, working with an astute 13-year-old patient, I received a response that no one had ever given me before. "Marketing."

Marketing. Excited he said this, I got out some of my favorite props. A box of 'fruit' snacks adorned with all of the Disney princesses, a cola bottle with Beyonce's face on it, a sugary cereal with Avengers on the cover and a toy inside. "You mean like this?" I asked.

​ ​"Every day, food advertisers spend millions of dollars marketing junk food to kids and adolescents"​

Every day, food advertisers spend millions of dollars marketing junk food to kids and adolescents. Given their sole purpose is to make money, the "investment" must pay off. Celebrity endorsements certainly help drive exposure to the products. According to a recent study in Pediatrics, Beyonce's soda ad generated a whopping 55,000,000+ YouTube views.  An earlier ad for a fast-food chain featuring Britney Spears topped 56,000,000 views. Of the celebrity endorsements studied, 70 percent of beverage ads were for sugary drinks and 80 percent of the food ads were for energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods.

This is what we're up against in a constant battle to help our patients and their families navigate through a toxic food environment – deep pockets and slick marketing tactics trying to make kids want to eat certain foods that often aren't the best choices for them.

​What can pediatricians and parents do about it?​

First, especially for young children, we can protect them from exposure to junk food advertising by minimizing TV time, allowing only apps and programming that are free of advertisements and commercials, and trying to shop at stores that use their own packaging rather than 'name brands' that are more likely to flash cartoon and celebrity endorsements. 

We can help our kids develop media literacy. Once kids are about 8 years old, they can start to tell the difference between programming and an advertisement and can learn to become savvy to marketing tricks designed to get them to make an unhealthy choice.​

"Another recent study in Pediatrics found that when a school campaign included cartoon characters to promote fruit and vegetable consumption, the kids ate far more produce.​"

We might package healthy foods in ways that appeal to children and adolescents. Another recent study in Pediatrics found that when a school campaign included cartoon characters to promote fruit and vegetable consumption, the kids ate far more produce. As this goes to show, the same marketing tactics used by junk food advertisers can be redirected in a healthier way. I experienced this personally with my own son. As a preschooler, he was very in to Sesame Street and not so much into eating a lot of fruits and vegetables. As an experiment for his birthday party at school, he and I together created an assortment of Sesame Street characters made out of fruits and vegetables. When he arrived to school with a pineapple Big Bird, tomato Elmo, blueberry and blackberry Cookie Monster, and broccoli and edamame Oscar the Grouch, the kids were thrilled and every one of them ate the produce version of their favorite characters.

We can also advocate for limits on junk food advertisements to children and adolescents. We can pressure industry and celebrities to become more responsible in their marketing strategies, and push for a greater investment and promotion for healthful foods. We can ask schools to limit advertisements and incentives from food companies and restaurants that serve mostly low-nutrition foods.

And, when working with our patients and families, we can add "marketing" to the package of topics we cover to help guide healthy food choices.​

​​Ab​out the ​​Author


Natalie Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP, is a pediatrician in Vista, Califonia, and serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Section on Obesity executive committee. She is the co-author of the Picky Eater Project: 6 Weeks to Happier, Healthier​ Family Mealtimes, which will be published this Fall by the AAP. She can be reached at​

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