Concern about how food is marketed to children

Games featuring snack foods becoming increasingly popular with kids

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AImee Yoon's children like to play with their food, but not in the way that you might think.  Using touch screen tablets and mobile devices, they swirl slushy drinks, jiggle gelatin snacks and flick lollipops.

"I think as long as the game is engaging to them then they're kind of hooked and want to keep playing it," said Aimee.

Her kids are part of the estimated 1.2 million children who play advergames - branded, interactive games designed to market products.  Available via apps and web sites, they typically tout cereals, candy, and fast food, raising concern among childhood health and nutrition experts.

"These games are accessible anytime and anywhere," said Dr. Jennifer Harris with the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. 

Harris' newest research shows advergames can be an effective sales pitch.

"When children played the unhealthy advergames they ate about 50% more snack food immediately afterwards than kids who didn't play those games," she said.

Right now the Federal Trade Commission does not have the authority to regulate marketing food to children, but recommends companies only advertise foods that meet "meaningful nutrition standards." 

Mary Engle with the FTC says the problem is, "The government doesn't define meaningful nutrition standards. Right now, it's up to each individual company to decide what that is."

And that definition can vary widely, which worries many experts.  The FTC, along with three other agencies, drafted voluntary food marketing guidelines for children, but the push lost steam in Congress.

"The FTC would certainly like to see more uniformity in the nutrition standards," said Engle.

Elaine Kolish is with the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which is made up of 16 major food companies.  The group has made a pledge to market healthier foods to children.

"With less sugar, less sodium, less fat, fewer calories, and more of the good stuff, fruits and vegetables and whole grains and fiber," said Kolish.

Still, some companies claim their advergames aren't targeting children, but older teens and adults, so they say they're free from those guidelines.

"Our job is not to tell parents how to parent, or tell them what media or what apps or web sites their children should watch or engage with," said Kolish.

But many games rated for kids as young as four, Harris is pushing for stronger self-regulation.

"They need to admit that these games are very popular with children and they're having an impact," said Harris.

"After I play the game, sometimes I want to ask mommy for a lollipop," admitted 8-year-old Maddie Yoon.

Maddie's mom Aimee knows advergames aren't child's play.  That's why she plays up healthy eating at meal time.

"My kids are still at a age where I have enough control over what I'm putting on their plate," she said.

According to the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative:

"The new uniform nutrition criteria establish limits on calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugars for ten product categories, and include requirements for nutrition components to encourage, such as vegetables, fruit, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and essential vitamins and minerals. The new criteria require participants to improve many products they currently advertise to children ? products that already meet meaningful nutrition standards ? if they wish to continue advertising them after these criteria go into effect on December 31, 2013."

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