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Lucky Leprechaun isn't looking so lucky these days.
For almost 50 years, the cartoon imp has helped General Mills peddle its Lucky Charms cereal. His trademark phrase -- "They're magically delicious" -- has been a milk-pouring mantra for generations of American kids.
But worries about the nation's child obesity epidemic could silence Lucky and other cereal cartoon mascots.
A growing public backlash against marketing sugar-heavy food to children has the federal government putting extraordinary new pressure on the nation's cerealmakers and other food companies. They may soon have little choice but to make sure products meet certain nutritional standards -- or stop marketing them to children younger than 12.
With new federal guidelines in the works, the stakes are enormous for food giants such as General Mills, which is based in Golden Valley. Its $2 billion-a-year cereal business includes kid-focused brands like Trix and Reese's Puffs, along with classics such as Wheaties.
"The guidelines would be one of the most important ways for the food industry to improve children's health," said Mary Story, a University of Minnesota public health professor and expert on child and adolescent nutrition.
But foodmakers say the government is trying to strong-arm them into changing products in ways they consider unrealistic and unwarranted. If they don't comply, the companies say, they could be compelled to scrap commercials that have long featured marketing icons like Lucky, the Trix rabbit and Toucan Sam of Froot Loops fame.
General Mills spokesman Tom Forsythe said the guidelines would mean "a virtual ban on advertising to kids under 12 when fully implemented. ... They are unworkable."
Amid the growing pressure, General Mills and the rest of the multibillion dollar industry have gone to work to cut down on sugar and salt in products that appeal most to children. The companies point to sugar reductions of 20 percent or more in Lucky Charms and other breakfast favorites as evidence that, even without federal intervention, they are getting results.
Public health advocates have praised those efforts but also contend that they haven't made a big enough impact. The industry's definition of healthy food, they say, is too lenient and puts business interests before kids' health.
"They want to have their cake and eat it too," said Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. "They want to make up their own standards and pat themselves on the back for meeting them."
Customers for life
A huge and important market is at stake for foodmakers.
A conservative estimate of food and beverage sales to kids and teens registered $10 billion last year, a number expected to rise 40 percent by 2015, according to Packaged Facts, a research group.
The 2- to 12-year-old age group makes up nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population -- and the most influential age group for marketers, Packaged Facts concludes in a May research report. "Lifelong dietary habits are established during this 10-year age span, and brand loyalty begins," the report said.
Advertisers have known this for decades. Fifty years ago, General Mills sponsored the classic "Rocky & Bullwinkle" cartoon show, making it a showcase for its cereal.
Parents, of course, have long dealt with the nag effect fostered by TV advertising.
Count Happi Olson among them. A Minnetonka mother of four and marketing director at toy store Creative Kidstuff, Olson has only basic cable television, which reduces her children's exposure to kid programming.
But on Saturday morning, TV is as it's always been: lots of kids' shows with lots of kid-oriented ads. And the ads work their magic.
"It's literally a barrage from my kids when they are watching these shows. 'I want this, I want that,'" Olson said. "They will see these ads and call out for strange cereals we never buy."
She does buy Cocoa Puffs, Froot Loops and a few other kid favorites but limits her kids to one serving per day. "They are a vehicle for my children to consume milk." She doesn't count on "sugar" cereal, as she put it, for anything else nutrition-wise.
Worries about the effects of marketing on children have led to restrictions on TV advertising since the 1970s. The subject got new life in the past five years as concern grew over obesity.
The percentage of U.S. children ages 6 to 11 who are obese nearly tripled between 1980 and 2008, and a similar pattern played out among teenagers. In 2008, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But do ads make kids fat? The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group for makers of packaged food, says no, pointing to a landmark 2005 study by the Institute of Medicine that failed to show food advertising caused childhood obesity.
However, that same report found a link between the two: Food and beverage marketing influences the product preferences and purchase requests of children younger than 12.
"We found very strong evidence that food marketing really contributes to an environment that puts the health of American children at risk," said Story, a member of the Institute of Medicine committee that did the 2005 study.
"We found food advertising really influences children's dietary preferences and is linked to obesity."
A healthy choice?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent dietary guidelines point to added sugar in food as a potential path to obesity -- and to breakfast cereal as a "major" source of the sweet stuff.
Still, soda pop along with energy and sports drinks are much bigger sources of added sugar in the American diet than cereal, the USDA report said. And among kids and teens, desserts, pizza and soda are the largest sources of calories; cereal ranked 10th.
General Mills and the nation's other cereal titan, Michigan-based Kellogg Co., say cereal is getting a bad rap. "If the issue is obesity, we should be advertising more cereal to kids, not less," Forsythe said.
Kellogg declined interview requests but said in an e-mail that "when you consider what constitutes a nutritious breakfast, cereal ranks as one of the most nutritious choices available."
In recent years, cerealmakers have been bolstering their offerings with whole grains and cutting sugar. General Mills points out, too, that a box of cereal -- be it Lucky Charms or Cheerios -- is full of vitamins and minerals.
Still, kid cereals set off alarm bells among some nutritionists.
First, there's sugar content, even after industry efforts to reduce it. "We are still talking about 2 1/2 teaspoons of sugar in a serving of breakfast cereal, and most kids don't just eat one serving," said Harris of Yale's Rudd Center.
Then there's controversy over vitamins. In cereal, they come from fortification -- "sprayed-on" nutrients that are "more about marketing" than health, said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food industry watchdog group pushing for the government ad guidelines.
General Mills says fortification has long been recognized as an important way to add nutrients to Americans' diet.
The way that Trina Young of south Minneapolis sees it, a vitamin is a vitamin. She's a paralegal and a mother of two teenagers, whose shopping cart on a recent foray to Cub Foods included two boxes each of Cocoa Pebbles and Cinnamon Chex.
"At least children's cereal has vitamins, unlike cake or a cookie," she said. "And it's low in calories."
Writing their own rules
The critical question is, how much sugar, fat and salt should a product contain if it's marketed to kids?
Not surprisingly, the food industry and federal regulators have different answers.
Since launching its Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative five years ago, the industry has allowed each participating company to develop its own thresholds for sugar, salt and fat -- and to reformulate products as they see fit.
Since 2006, more than 20,000 products have been reformulated to make them healthier, said Scott Faber, the Grocery Manufacturers Association's vice president for federal affairs. "Our self-regulatory program has worked."
General Mills is often held up as an example. The company cut sugar in its prime kids' cereals from 12 to 13 grams per serving in 2007 to 10 grams in 2010, and is working on more reductions. It's already hit 9 grams of sugar in some cereals with both kid and adult audiences.
Kellogg has made significant reductions, too, though its two leading kids cereals, Froot Loops and Apple Jacks, have 12 grams of sugar, and sugar is still the leading ingredient in each. Both companies also say they have cut sodium by at least 10 percent from their cereals.
Cutting sugar and salt can be an expensive, time-consuming process. The more of each a company removes, the harder it is to reformulate a product without messing up its taste and texture. "You could say any [reduction] is possible, but the question is, would people eat it?" Forsythe said.
To foodmakers, the federal ad guidelines push the limits. And though the guidelines would be voluntary, even their supporters acknowledge foodmakers would feel pressure to comply -- or risk a public relations backlash.
Under the federal guidelines, cereal would have no more than 8 grams of sugar if it's to be advertised to kids, whether on television, online or anywhere else. Hitting that target "isn't easy," Forsythe said, but the feds' salt standards are so stringent they will be "impossible or nearly impossible" to meet.
"Cheerios has only one gram of sugar, and we couldn't get it to qualify," he said. Too much salt. The same goes for the rest of its classic cereals, he said.
But Wootan, the food industry watchdog, said since the proposed sodium guidelines wouldn't take full effect for 10 years, General Mills and other foodmakers have ample time to reformulate their products. "They are really bending over backwards to show their products don't meet the standards."
Wootan and other public health advocates have criticized the industry's self-regulatory initiative for lacking unified standards. General Mills and Kellogg market kids cereals under the same industry umbrella, but Kellogg's top two products have more sugar.
In July, a few months after the federal guidelines were unveiled, the industry said it will adopt unified product marketing standards by the end of 2013.
For cereal, General Mills is already in accordance with the new industry standard of 10 grams of sugar per serving; Kellogg isn't. The industry says about one-third of its offerings wouldn't meet its own beefed-up kid marketing standards. A lot more would fall short of the proposed government guidelines, though how much isn't clear.
Earlier this month, the government softened its position on children's food marketing -- teenagers won't be covered as originally proposed -- but it didn't change its core recommendations.
Federal agencies also said that when drafting their final marketing guidelines, they would consider the industry's strengthening of its own standards. Their final guidelines are due out soon and will go to Congress for review.
The final word
For all the debate over kid marketing, just about everybody agrees on one thing: Parents are usually the ultimate judge of what goes in the grocery cart. They are the gatekeepers of children's purchasing power.
"My kids ask for a lot of things I don't give them," said Kris Bigalk, a mother of five and a creative writing teacher at Normandale Community College. A trip to the grocery store with her younger children, ages 5 and 10, elicits the usual chorus of "I wants."
Doughnuts, Ho-Hos and other snack cakes are popular shoutouts that get the thumbs down from mom. Kids' cereal gets the OK -- her 5-year-old cereal-hound son is particularly a fan of General Mills' Cookie Crisp.
Kids see a lot of ads, and Bigalk knows that isn't going to change. She supports anything that would make the products those ads promote healthier, whether the change is driven by the government or the industry.
"This is a reality for our kids," Bigalk said. "They will be marketing targets the rest of their lives. "
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003