Coca-Cola has begun a youth physical fitness programme. Trying to sidestep accusations of fattening America's youth, the drinkmaker has joined the flood of food and drink companies' initiatives trying to create a healthier population. While these lifestyle campaigns are a step forward, consumers, lobbyists and manufacturers must pull together further to address the issue of 'problem foods'. 

By launching its 'Step With It' programme this week, Coca-Cola is challenging 50,000 middle school students across the US to incorporate physical activity into their lives. In partnership with the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, it will encourage kids to take 10,000 steps a day to maintain good health.

Such initiatives are vital in the battle against the bulge. The focus on child health, specifically obesity, is long overdue. While it is a worldwide phenomenon, the US statistics are particularly worrisome: only one US state out of 50 surveyed in 1999 had less than 15% population rate of obesity. And 14% of 12-19 year olds are classified as obese, almost triple the number 20 years ago.

Last month, the International Food Information Council launched its website. Funded by a number of top CPG companies, including Coca-Cola, Hershey, Kraft Foods, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Sara Lee, the site is designed to teach kids and their families how to stay active, lose weight and live healthier lives.

The Centers for Disease Control, meanwhile, plan a TV campaign targeting children aged 9-13. It will feature a computer-generated girl figure jumping into a swimming pool full of action words such as "twist," "run" and "jump". The tagline for the effort is "Verb: It's what you do".

All these initiatives are a good step forward in the battle against obesity. However, given that the average woman must reportedly run for two and a half hours to burn off the calories from a supersize Big Mac meal, it's clear that food is as much a key factor in becoming overweight as activity and lifestyle.

New labelling legislation and product distribution restrictions are needed to tackle this end of the problem. The question however, is whether food companies will show these as much support as they have the fitness campaigns.

Related research: "US Nutraceuticals 2002" (DMCM0091)

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