SpongeBob's diet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IT'S BEEN A rough winter for SpongeBob SquarePants. The cartoon sponge from Bikini Bottom was repudiated by Christian activist James Dobson for teaching tolerance to school-age children (in a video that might, possibly, indirectly and in a certain light, be construed as being against gay-bashing). His first movie, the creatively titled The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, got roughed up by critics.

And, in a decision that really hits him in the underwater Pineapple, Kraft Foods announced recently it will gradually "shift the mix" of products the company markets to children under 12 between now and next year.

Translation: Kraft won't advertise snacks that are really bad for you, such as Kool-Aid, Oreos and Chips Ahoy! cookies, on kids' television shows like SpongeBob's. And that goes for radio and print outlets that cater primarily to young children, too.

This may be bad news for Nickelodeon, but it's great news for parents. Just try grocery shopping with a 7-year-old. We dare you. Children are so saturated with product hype that a stroll down the cereal aisle will make most any youngster reflexively foam at the mouth. The average child watches more than 40,000 commercials per year, and more than half of them are for kid-oriented food and drink, experts say. That adds up to a lot of girls and boys jonesing for a box of Cocoa Pebbles.

Kraft is the nation's largest food company, so the decision is likely to have some effect on the $15 billion food products industry. Of course, it's not as if the company is going to abandon children's television altogether. Instead, Kraft officials said they'll feature products - though to what extent is by no means clear - from the company's growing line of "better-for-you" foods. That's a designation that may be in the eye of the beholder since it includes certain Oscar Mayer Lunchables (a high-salt, high-sugar prepackaged kids meal that is long on processed cheese and short on vegetables).

Nevertheless, it's a welcome change. Cartoon characters have been linked to children's foods for generations; Mighty Mouse was hired to shill for Post Sugar Crisp cereal in the 1950s. But in some ways, Kraft may have had little choice but to change.

Childhood obesity rates are out of control - double what they were three decades ago - and the health implications are daunting. Parents are justly worried, but allies in their fight against junk foods are rare. The notion that government should restrict ads that tout nutritionally suspect foods to children fell out of fashion about a quarter-century ago. No doubt Kraft is aware of parents' concerns and sees a profit to be made in "sensible" foods. Still, better a little self-restraint than none at all.

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