Friday, June 25, 2010


Eating habits inculcated during early years of growth tend to get ingrained in the minds of children, carrying it forward during the rest of their lives. The scientific basis of feeding children with natural foods with minimum sugar, salt and fat till the age of 3 years is built on this concept. Every mother knows the trials and tribulations encountered during the feeding of a baby as every spoonful ingested is a great relief, reducing the anxiety. Though the survival instinct amongst humans may not allow a baby to go hungry for long, such a consolation is difficult to satisfy the feelings of a mother and therefore it is but natural that all mothers deploy all the tricks at their command to "persuade" the baby to take as much food as possible. While feeding bland but nutritious foods may pose many challenges, persisting with them will be rewarding in the long run as the baby has a better chance to grow into a healthy individual with no weakness for foods with high sensory satisfaction and least health credentials.

Childhood obesity is a major concern in some of the wealthy countries because of the exposure of kids to high caloric foods offered by the food processing industry at very low cost. That high caloric foods can be addictive is well known and easier the availability higher will be opportunity to over indulge in these foods with all its undesirable consequences. In spite of stringent labeling regulations which provide valuable information regarding the extent of calories, fat and other health related parameters, consumers are still driven more by the sensory pleasure provided by the food rather than the nutritional credentials. The large serving size, used as standard reference for declaring nutritional/health information tends to mislead the consumer to believe that consuming a part of the pack should not be as dangerous!

Food industry has a social responsibility and a contract with the consumer that the products turned out from its factories do not harm them and many major players do observe constraints in promoting their products through unethical and dubious techniques. But there are many who cross the limit by indulging in unfair promotional practices and unsubstantiated health claims. Safety enforcement agencies have an enormous responsibility in bringing to books such culprits but there are legal and practical constraints that prevent them from achieving ideal results as per the expectations of the consumers. The recent reported use of flavoring substances such as Vanilla in baby foods is an example as to what extent some in the industry will go to capture the market. Probably the idea behind such practices is to hook on the growing children to processed foods, many of them containing vanilla as an ingredient.

Another ploy now being used by the industry is to exploit the affinity many children have for familiar cartoon characters like "the Explorer", "Dora", "Shrek" etc. According to a recent study many children seem to be under the illusion that foods taste better when a familiar cartoon character like Dora or Scooby Doo appears on its packaging. As a corollary to the above observation, it was also discovered that most kids prefer snacks that have the character on it, over cheaper generic packages containing exactly the same food with similar taste profile. Though these findings should come as welcome news to food and beverage companies, which spend astronomical sums each year wooing young consumers, it raises many disturbing questions regarding the consequences of such targeted promotional efforts by the industry. Many scientific organizations and consumer advocacy groups have long argued against such kid-targeted advertising, noting that as the food industry's child marketing budget has surged over the past several decades, so have obesity rates in preschool and primary-school-aged children. How far such use of cartoon characters on product packaging actually influences the eating habits of children is a matter of conjecture in the absence any reliable scientific research in this area.


No comments: