How Did Toucan Sam Became a Scapebird for Childhood Obesity?


Yesterday the Federal Trade Commission proposed "voluntary principles for marketing food to children" that would require the drastic reformulation of many popular products. The guidelines do not have the force of law, but the threat of regulatory action always hangs in the background when the federal government suggests that businesses should change the way they operate. As Dan Jaffe, an executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers, tells The New York Times, "There's clearly a demand hidden behind the velvet glove of the voluntary language."

The guidelines, produced in response to a congressional directive, specify minimum amounts for favored nutrients ("fruit, vegetable, whole grain, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds, or beans") and maximum amounts for disfavored nutrients (sugar, salt, trans fat, and saturated fat) in food advertised to consumers who are 17 or younger. The sugar limit is 13 grams per serving, which is high enough to accommodate the current versions of Trix, Froot Loops, Cocoa Pebbles, Lucky Charms, and Frosted Flakes but not Apple Jacks, Corn Pops, Honey Smacks, or Franken Berry. All of these brands, and others like them, presumably would have to include a lot more whole grains (or fish bits?) than they currently do to pass muster.

The salt limits—140 milligrams per serving for the "reference amount customarily consumed" of "individual foods" and 300 milligrams per serving for "main dishes and meals"—are even more demanding. Pepperidge Farm's cheddar-flavored Goldfish crackers, for instance, have 250 milligrams of salt per serving (almost twice the limit for its category), while Chef Boyardee Beefaroni contains 959 (three times the limit). The salt requirements are especially hard to justify given the weakness of the scientific case for population-wide reductions in sodium consumption and the main justification for the guidelines, which is "reducing the nation's childhood obesity epidemic."

Speaking of which, the upward trend in obesity among children began in the 1980s. How is it that venerable food-hawking characters such as Tony the Tiger (introduced in 1958), Toucan Sam (introduced in 1963), and Ronald McDonald (ditto) are taking the blame for making kids fat? The New York Times puts it this way:

Will Toucan Sam

go the way of Joe Camel?…

Citing an epidemic of childhood obesity, regulators are taking aim at a range of tactics used to market foods high in sugar, fat or salt to children, including the use of cartoon characters like Toucan Sam, the brightly colored Froot Loops pitchman, who appears in television commercials and online games as well as on cereal boxes….

"Toucan Sam can sell healthy food or junk food," said Dale Kunkel, a communications professor at the University of Arizona who studies the marketing of children's food. "This forces Toucan Sam to be associated with healthier products."…

By explicitly tying advertising to childhood obesity, the government is suggesting there is a darker side to cuddly figures like Cap'n Crunch, the Keebler elves, Ronald McDonald and the movie and television characters used to promote food. It also raises the question of whether they might ultimately share the fate of Joe Camel, the cartoon figure used to promote Camel cigarettes that was phased out amid allegations that it was meant to entice children to smoke.

The case against Joe Camel was never as strong as people commonly supposed: Smoking among teenagers actually declined after he was introduced, although he does seem to have helped increase market share for R.J. Reynolds. The case against cartoony food mascots is even weaker, since they predate their supposed impact on children's eating habits by decades.

As the father of three girls and the parent who does all the grocery shopping in our family, I can testify that there is a lot of crap out there. You know why? Kids like crap, and their parents buy it for them. It has always been thus. But healthier food options are more plentiful and widely available today than ever before, because there is a demand for them as well. The government should allow that market-driven process to continue, instead of trying to strong-arm food companies into complying with arbitrary standards created by bureacrats who disapprove of the way other people raise their children.