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Kids' TV meals require scrutiny


Whether it's a cartoon character promotion, a special design on the label, the kid's-eye-level placement on supermarket shelves, or the highly produced advertisements clustered around children's television shows, there's no question that tremendous effort is being devoted to the selling of young minds. The formulation and packaging of TV dinners for children is a perfect example.

In only a couple of years, these kids' meals have grown to account for about $250 million in food sales. Much of the success of the products is due to the application of sophisticated marketing techniques in the children's market.

The evolution of electronic graphic arts has been integral in this growth, giving marketers the tools to produce dazzling commercials. All one has to do is watch a bit of children's television to see how the state-of-the-art in marketing products has changed.

Tyson, for example, makes use of popular cartoon characters in its new Looney Tunes Meals. On each carton is a large picture of Bugs Bunny, Road Runner or Daffy Duck, and inside is a packet of Looney Tunes trading cards and stickers. Tyson even coordinated the introduction of the line with the 50th birthday celebration of Bugs Bunny.

When these products are advertised, it's difficult to know where the cartoon ends and the commercial begins. The total package is a formidable salvo for children to ignore and, in Tyson's case, has helped the line skyrocket to success in the marketplace.

Tyson, though, is certainly not the only culprit. At present there are at least three major brands of kid's meals -- each with its own selection of entrees. This translates to great variability in nutritional composition. While most provide a main course, vegetable and dessert, it's the high fat and sodium (salt) content that often overshadows possible nutritional assets in these meals.

The fat content in the Kid's Cuisine line, for example, ranges from 28 percent of calories in the Cheese Pizza, to almost half the calories (48 percent) in the Fried Chicken meal. And this figure represents the entire dinner. However, if a child does not eat the carbohydrate portion of the meal -- the accompanying potato, vegetable dish or even the desert -- that percentage of fat would rise even higher.

It's difficult, though, to discover this from looking at the carton. Despite its lofty fat content, the label on the Kid's Cuisine Fried Chicken dinner says "88 percent fat free." This is true if you calculate fat on a weight basis (the weight of fat compared with the weight of the total meal). But as most health guidelines use the more informative measure of fat as a percentage of the calories in a meal, this bragging about a seemingly low fat by weight only makes for a confusing label.

Do these products have any nutritional merit?

While these highly processed children's meals are better than no food at all, or a meal full of snack foods, it's difficult to consider them the substance from which long-term healthful eating habits are established.

There's little problem if they are used on occasion because of time constraints, or as an indulgence to a child's persistent requests. If, however, you find such meals to be the routine rather than the exception, it may be time for a re-examination of priorities.

An issue with such meals is that it's the promotion, rather than the quality of the food that sells the product. As children accompany their parents up and down the aisles, the packages can represent an island of familiarity to young eyes. When noticed, the friendly looking cartoon character kindles the desire to ask Mommy or Daddy to take it home.

It's not surprising that studies have found that the incidence of adolescent obesity increases 2 percent for every additional hour of daily television. While one might think this finding is due to a lack of physical activity, there would be no surprise if they found a correlation between obesity, the number of commercials a child views and the resulting food choices they make.

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