Public health agencies believe tackling child obesity involves both discouraging the eating of unhealthy foods, and increasing consumption of healthy foods, in particular fruits and vegetables. Ben Cooper looks at what produce companies in the US are contributing to the battle, and how their activities are viewed by campaigners.

As in other countries, there is concern in the US that children are not eating enough fruit and vegetables, which is seen as a contributory factor behind high levels childhood obesity.

Notwithstanding the figures published this week by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggesting childhood obesity rates in the US have plateaued, levels are still alarmingly high. According to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates, around 25m children in the US – one in three – are either overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.

While reducing consumption of HFSS foods and promoting a more active lifestyle are key objectives for campaigners and public health agencies, encouraging the consumption of more fresh produce is also critical. However, the challenge of persuading children to eat their greens has been around a lot longer than the current obesity epidemic. And in today’s market environment, where so much less healthy food is marketed deliberately to appeal to children, it is arguably harder than ever.

A recent survey, commissioned by Produce for Kids, an organisation created by Florida-based Shuman Produce to communicate the benefits of eating fresh produce, has thrown some light on the effectiveness of current marketing of fruit and vegetables.

Produce companies have innovated in a number of ways to boost consumption of fruit and vegetables by children, principally through packaging and product concepts, advertising, merchandising and websites featuring characters, activities, games and recipe ideas.

Launching pre-cut and packaged products allows for more on-pack design innovation, often featuring cartoon characters. There is a certain stark logic to this. If highly sweetened and fatty foods have to be adorned with bright colours and cartoon characters to attract children, then products that have traditionally been less palatable to children would do well to do likewise.

While some campaigners are concerned about the use of cartoon characters and devices such as advergaming on websites, the majority appear to endorse these initiatives for their overall positive impact.

“We’re very concerned about the marketing of unhealthy foods to children but we’re all for marketing healthy foods to children,” says Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at consumer advocacy organisation The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Wootan adds that responsible advertising can contribute to the food education process. “It’s not enough just to teach children about healthy eating in the classroom. You need to support healthy-eating education at home and in other places where children are. In order to encourage healthier diets for children, we need to have TV advertising, internet advergaming, and on-package marketing.”

The use of cartoon characters in advertising and on-pack has not been without controversy, however. Indeed, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) argues that such marketing techniques are inappropriate – even for healthy products – and that advertising to children is wrong in principle.

Pointing to the survey’s finding that as many as 27% of respondents said they would “probably” or “definitely” not buy produce featuring cartoons, Josh Golin of the CCFC says: “I think this speaks to a larger issue of a growing number of parents not wanting food companies, no matter what the quality of the product is, pitching their stuff directly to kids and making the kids an advocate for what they should be eating.” Golin asserts that even if cartoon character Spongebob is featured on a bag of carrots, “you’re still promoting this idea of eating what Spongebob tells you to eat”.

However, while there may be more fundamental questions to answer about how we communicate to children, Wooton sees the immediate imperative of improving children’s diets and driving down obesity rates as more pressing. Moreover, she appears to favour a wholehearted commitment to this form of marketing by produce companies.

While Dole Food Co. has created its own characters to put over the message, Wootan leans specifically towards the use of the well-known characters. “The made-up characters I think don’t work as well as the real characters. I don’t think those characters have the same appeal that Dora the Explorer, Spongebob, Hanna Montana and Jimmy Neutron have.”

As for the fact that cartoon characters can be used on less healthy products, Wootan believes this is a straightforward moral argument. “When they use them to advertise products that are harmful to children’s health, it’s unethical. But when they use them to sell healthy foods it’s in the public interest.”

In addition to allowing for more creative on-pack marketing, pre-packaged concepts also cut down preparation time, which makes it easier for busy – or less motivated – parents to offer their children fruits and vegetables. The Produce for Kids research indicated that parents purchase fresh-cut fruit and vegetables because these products enable children to help themselves, are convenient, and offer a healthy alternative to other, less nutritious snacks.

Wootan believes snacking occasions should not be monopolised by junk food. “There are times in a child’s day when snacking is appropriate,” Wootan says. “Snacking should not be an opportunity to eat junk food. Most children’s snacks should be fruit and vegetables.”

Slicing and bagging fruit and vegetables has attracted criticism from environmental campaigners but Wootan believes the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Fruit and vegetables need to be prepared in a way that children find appealing, she says, and this can extend to how products are packaged and marketed. For example, children are much more likely to eat an apple that is peeled and sliced than whole. An initiative by the New York State School Authority to buy bagged and sliced apples from farmers has been criticised by environmental groups but such initiatives are welcomed by CSPI.

Among the other ways to make fruit and vegetables more attractive to children is the use of dips and sauces, which are often pre-packed with produce. The Produce for Kids study stated that two-thirds of respondents said their children eat fresh fruits and vegetables with dips, such as ranch dressing with vegetables or caramel sauce with fruits.

Once again, some campaigners are cautious about this as some of these condiments can be high in salt, fat and sugar. But Wootan believes they have a place in a broad-ranging approach to improving children’s diets, provided consumption is not excessive and that low-fat and sugar options are preferred.

Overall therefore, Wootan believes that corporate and brand activity can complement public education messages. However, she points out that this is not always easy for the produce industry to achieve. “We would love it if the produce industry had more money to promote fruit and veg. In the last few years there has been more marketing of produce than in the past. But with the profit margins they have and with the overall structure of the industry, the produce industry is not able to do as much marketing as other sectors in the food industry.”

Underlining how supportive campaigners are of corporate involvement, Wootan supports the idea of public money, such as matching fund programmes, being given to companies who are engaged in the responsible promotion of fruit and vegetables to children.

Given the margin constraints, and the more fragmented nature of this sector, allocating public funds to company-based programmes may well be vital, both in facilitating further activity, and to support what campaigners generally consider is the valuable contribution being made by produce marketers.