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Parents cheered by Kellogg's cereal move

The Baltimore Sun

Tony the Tiger caught a break. But Toucan Sam has to cut back on the sweet stuff if he wants to push Froot Loops to kids from now on.

The Kellogg Co., the firm that introduced ready-to-eat cereal and made it an American staple with the aid of a lovable menagerie, has announced a breakfast-course correction.

Under pressure from health activists, the convenience-food conglomerate has agreed to restrict ads aimed at kids for products that don't meet certain nutritional standards. It's a move in the right direction, says Jennifer Talaber, clinical nutrition manager at Union Memorial Hospital.

The mother of two young children with a third on the way knows the lure of a Tony the Tiger or Toucan Sam. In the grocery store, her 3-year-old daughter typically points to cereal boxes "according to what animal or character is on it or how colorful the cereal is."

It is primarily the responsibility of adults to regulate the diet of children in their care, Talaber says, but "advertising is very powerful."

Since its earliest days, Kellogg has stressed nutrition while playing to consumers' sweet tooth.

As corporate legend has it, the cereal giant was conceived in 1894 when the Kellogg brothers forced a batch of boiled wheatberries through their kitchen rollers to create the first flaked cereal.

After the Kellogg Toasted Cornflake Co. was officially launched in 1906, its growing roster of products was promoted as a healthful complement to America's infatuation with self-improvement regimens.

Co-founder W.K. Kellogg also understood the value of appealing to consumers through their children, leading the company to become the first sponsor of children's cartoons on Saturday mornings. Last year, the manufacturer of All-Bran and Sugar Smacks reported sales of nearly $11 billion.

Lately, the company has taken a hit from parents, health experts and activists who blame the rise of childhood obesity and diabetes on marketing tactics by Kellogg and other manufacturers of convenience foods. Their contentions were bolstered by an Institute of Medicine report in 2005 that maintained "current food and beverage marketing practices puts children's long-term health at risk."

With its new advertising guidelines, Kellogg has "nudged the needle" toward better nutrition, says Dr. Donald Shifrin, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics task force on obesity.

But he's looking for more substantial changes in a cereal's contents. "If we can get them to move the needle further on fiber instead of just spraying on some vitamins, the nutritionists would be a lot happier."

Kellogg's modifications are a good first step, says Lisa Green-Cudek, whose daughters are 6 and 8. But, "we should remember that this change was not born of corporate good intentions but that Kellogg was forced to do it," says Green-Cudek, a dance teacher and choreographer.

"I find it difficult to feed children healthy foods these days," the North Baltimore resident says. "They are coerced by our society to want unhealthy food. It is a self-perpetuating phenomenon with peer pressure, school sponsors and even school and extracurricular athletic activities perpetuating the culture created by advertising."

Kellogg has set a limit of 200 calories and 12 grams of sugar per serving for products marketed to an audience made up of 50 percent or more of children under 12. The guidelines also forbid ads for products with more than 2 grams of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and any amount of trans fat.

Products that fall short of those standards will either be reformulated or pulled from television, Web sites, radio and print media by the end of 2008.

Still, parents may regard the guidelines as a hollow gesture that will allow ads for favorite sugary cereals to remain on the air. Call it a Froot Loop hole: With 13 grams of sugar per serving, regular Froot Loops exceeds the nutrition limit, but with 10 grams per serving, its reduced-sugar counterpart does not. With 11 grams of sugar, Frosted Flakes, touted by Tony the Tiger, also meets the guidelines.

Last year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other advocates announced plans to file a lawsuit against Kellogg for peddling harmful food to children.

"We're tired of our kids nagging us for the products that have SpongeBob and Shrek on the labels that are advertised. It makes our job so difficult," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the public-interest group. Kellogg's new nutrient criteria prompted Wootan's group to drop plans for its lawsuit. "It's not that Kellogg is only marketing really healthy foods; it's that Kellogg is getting rid of the marketing of some of their very worst products."

But putting health concerns above profits will be a challenge for Kellogg, says Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat and Food Politics. "I think companies are in an enormously difficult position on this issue," she says. "Even if they want to do the right thing and really care about kids' health, their job is to meet stockholders' growth expectations."

In 2005, Kraft Foods agreed to phase out advertising to kids ages 6 to 11 for products that fell short of certain nutrition criteria. Last year, Walt Disney Co. announced that it would only allow the use of licensed characters to promote food products that met specific nutrition standards.

Last November, corporate participants in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative made a commitment to increased advertising geared toward healthful choices and to reducing the presence of licensed characters in ad campaigns. They also pledged to eliminate product placements in elementary schools.

Group members will report their plans July 18 at a federally sponsored forum on "marketplace responses to childhood obesity."

Baltimore father Mark Cameron hopes the changes will make a difference. When considering advertising's influence on consumers, Cameron looks beyond his two sons to the low-income audience that also watches ads for cereal and other processed foods.

"It is hard to make good choices when you are limited in options, bombarded with advertising and media, and lack accessibility to better cereals," he says.

"Parents play a critical role in what children eat, but they need help -- and sometimes that is the role of the government to look after the public interest and public health."

stephanie.shapiro@baltsun.com

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