What's really in children's food

Tony the Tiger, Spongebob, Mr Messy – these friendly faces tempt children to make their own food choices. But are they the right choices? By Meg Carter

We've all been there, stunned into indecision by the baffling choice in the dairy cabinet screaming for our attention when someone calls from work on the mobile and sulky seven-year-old plots his escape. Which is how you end up with a box of Doctor Who Frubes even though no one in our house likes strawberry. Or Homer Simpson donuts. Spider-Man pasta with mini sausages in a tin... anything for a quiet life, even if deep down inside a voice nags us that we should know better.

Look only at the images on children's food products and you'd be forgiven for thinking that for all the soul-searching about kids' obesity and new advertising restrictions, little has changed. Behind the scenes, however, the industry is grappling not just with how to make children's food healthier, but how to make healthier food more appealing.

Putting a popular cartoon character on to a product aimed at children is one of the oldest tricks in the marketing handbook – a sure-fire way of harnessing pester power. "Children are deeply affected by role models – be they cartoon or actual representations of other children – as well as cute or aspirational characters they know are also liked or admired by their peers," says Professor Fergus Lowe, director of the Food and Activity Research Group at Bangor University's School of Psychology.

The rise of the dual-income family, meanwhile, has created another opportunity to exploit: working parents' willingness to shop to compensate for lack of time spent together as a family. This, along with tighter restrictions on advertising to children, is why a growing number of food companies have switched to targeting parents.

According to a Department of Health report published this week, the amount spent on UK food advertising to children fell from £103m in 2003 to £61m last year, with investment in TV advertising by junk-food brands almost halved. Spending on child-themed press adverts for kids' food in newspapers and women's magazines rose by 41 per cent, however, and cartoon characters are still used extensively "on pack".

"It's not exactly scientific – more the combined experience from years of trial and error," says Dr Lowe. "But the food industry has always and continues to invest heavily in cartoon characters and character licensing for a simple reason: it works."

Two types of characters are used by food companies to sell children's food. The first are big entertainment brands – popular movie personalities like Shrek, or familiar TV characters like Ben 10. These, in turn, split into two broad groups – "classic" characters such as Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine, and newer, more fashion-sensitive properties such as High School Musical. Then there are a host of cartoon characters created by the food companies themselves – on-pack personalities such as Tony the Tiger, the Milkybar Kid or the Munch Bunch, who've become famous in their own right through years of TV advertising.

How food companies use cartoon characters, however, is changing as new ad regulations bite. Since April 2007 there has been a ban on the use of licensed characters in TV ads for products high in fat, sugar and salt that are aimed at four- to nine-year-olds. In January this was extended to programmes aimed at four- to 15-year-olds. Children's TV channels were granted a graduated phase-in period with full implementation of the new regulations to come into force by January 1 2009.

According to Lima, the trade body that represents the owners of licensable characters, the new regulation has had a significant impact. "The cost to our industry has been a marked decline in interest in licensing characters for children's food over the past year," says Lima UK's managing director, Kelvyn Gardner. "Although, there has been some evidence of growing interest in using characters on products deemed by the Food Standards Agency to be 'healthier' – products with demonstrably lower levels of fat, sugar and salt."

Food companies have been working to clean up their act. Already, many familiar children's foods have been reformulated. Not so long ago, a character-themed birthday cake, for example, would typically contain hydrogenated fats and artificial colourings. Now, many boast their lack of artificial colourings, flavourings and trans-fats, their low salt content or use of whole grains. In line with many other packaged foods aimed at older consumers, the new mantra is "healthier options".

Children's TV channels, many of which also license their cartoon characters to food companies, are also taking a more responsible attitude. Nickelodeon, for example, now only allows its cartoon characters to be associated with FSA-designated "healthier" foods. Its SpongeBob SquarePants character, not so long ago an enthusiastic co-promotional partner with Burger King, now endorses vitamins, Kidsnax dried-fruit pouches, and square crumpets – "low fat carb options", says a spokeswoman for the company.

Disney, too, is working to promote healthier foods with a new co-branded children's food range with Tesco. The aim of products such as Winnie the Pooh "easy peeler citrus fruit", Tigger wholegrain porridge and Mickey Mouse ready meals is to encourage children to choose more nutritious food. A Tesco spokesman says sales are "encouraging".

Yet concerns remain about how food companies are applying their marketing muscle to promoting healthier products to kids. In its 2007 Cartoons and Villains Report, Which? declared that too many unhealthy foods were still being promoted through the on-pack use of familiar cartoon characters. In its Cartoon League Table published this month, the consumer watchdog said that none of the 19 food company-owned characters it surveyed were used only on-pack to promote healthier children's foods.

"The trouble is, there's an advertising regulation loophole," says Clare Corbett of Which? "Though third-party licensed characters such as Shrek can no longer promote foods and drinks that are high in fat, sugar and salt to younger children, existing legislation does nothing to stop less healthy promotions using food company-owned characters, such as Kellogg's Tony the Tiger or Moo, the Dairylea cow. It's not the use of cartoon characters we object to, but the lack of focus on using these characters to promote healthier food."

Professor Lowe shares this concern. He believes that a more concerted effort is needed to tackle the unhealthy eating culture in UK playgrounds. His team at Bangor University have created the Food Dudes, a cartoon gang whose special powers, gained from eating fruit and veg, help them fight evil baddies called Junk Punks. Based on psychological research into the best ways to get children to eat healthily, the Food Dudes campaign comprises video adventures, celebrity tie-ins, learning materials and a rewards scheme that will be rolled out in the UK early next year. The thinking behind it, however, is simple: if cartoon-led "aspirational" marketing can sell unhealthy products, it can sell healthy eating options, too.

Food Dudes' success will depend on the appeal of the cartoon characters themselves: recent research by Stanford University School of Medicine found that children under eight are more likely to say they prefer the taste of products with familiar and appealing visual cues on the packaging than identical products in an unmarked box. The moral? The most popular children's foods are those with the most engaging packaging, irrespective of what's inside.

Cool characters: How cartoons sell

MOO

The Dairylea cow was condemned by 'Which?' as the "worst offender" in a survey of food company characters: Moo promoted 17 Dairylea products, all classed as less healthy by the FSA.



WINNIE THE POOH AND FRIENDS

Criticised in the past for endorsing sweets and desserts, Pooh and Tigger are both now associated with healthier food options with the launch of a Disney-branded healthier-eating range at Tesco.



POPEYE

Arguably the first cartoon character to support healthy eating. The superhuman strength Popeye received from spinach had a huge impact on children's eating habits: when he first appeared in the 1920s, US sales of spinach increased by a third.



FOOD DUDES

The latest in a line of cartoon characters conceived to make healthy eating cool. The World Cancer Research Fund's Grub Club has a club, magazine and website; Cartoon Network's series 'Elfy Food' was set in a magical world where fruit and veg help elves fight the evil Frank Farter. In 2003, the FSA used the Bash Street Kids to promote healthy eating in Scotland; it concluded the characters lacked appeal for a UK-wide campaign.

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