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How the Food Industry Quietly Manipulates Children (and Their Parents!)

This is the second in a series about how the food industry has many tools at their disposal to get you to purchase and consume their products. In this episode, we explore their methods to hook children on their products at a very early age through testing, ingredients, and marketing. The next episode will discuss Convenience.

1:32 What I want you to know - your weight loss struggle is not your fault!
3:14 If you were born in the late 50's or 60's or later, you were quietly manipulated by the food industry, and even today, toddlers are being targeted!
4:48 How does the food industry get kids interested in their products?
5:36 The food industry designs products by experimenting on children.
8:42 The food industry scientifically determines the optimum amount of sugar to put in a product by experimenting on children, then determines how best to market their products to them.
9:45 Kellogs, Post, and General Mills, are the big three. They spend almost twice as much on advertising as they do on the ingredients that go into their products.
15:53 A deliberate attempt to hide nutritional information?
18:00 How is this affecting our kids? The most recent statistics on childhood obesity are here. The statistics indicate that one in four high school students has pre-diabetes. We're screening 10 year olds for adult onset diabetes!
21:07 What can you do? Here are some tips!

--- Full Raw Transcription of Podcast Below ---

Hey everyone welcome to the podcast today, so glad to have you here with me listening. I’ve been thrilled with all the great feedback on this podcast.  If you are getting a lot out of this, please make sure to subscribe, rate the podcast and leave an honest review. 

In case you don’t already know me, I’m a medical doctor who specializes in weight loss medicine. I’m also the creator of JBWL, an online program designed to help people lose weight and keep it off. This is the second  in my 3 part series on how the food industry hooks us. I’ve talked about how they get us to CRAVE, and today we’re talking about how they hook CHILDREN. Next time we’ll talk about how they hook us with convenience.  So get it? It’s the 3 C’s of food industry tactics: Craving, children, and convenience. 

So today I wanted to talk about kids.  Our kids. Our sweet innocent children.  Remember when you were a child and life was just... simple?

Well, If you were born in the 1960s or later … I have some interesting news for you. Are you ready?
Most likely, you were quietly manipulated by the food industry from the time you were a small child! 
And unfortunately, toddlers these days are REALLY getting targeted.  Parents are rushed, trying to do too much, so the food industry has developed really convenient toddler foods for the kiddos. Unfortunately, they’re filled with sugar.  So today we’re going to talk about this.
So think back to when you were a child. What were your favorite foods?  Mine were frosted flakes, Hydrox cookies (I told you about that one in a previous podcast), and chocolate ice cream. The Frosted Flakes addiction started when I was very young… I LOVED Tony the Tiger … “They’re GRREEAATT!” right?  Well, nowadays, you can find all sorts of cereals marketed to children with favorite cartoon characters.  Think about the Trix Bunny or the Captain in Captain Crunch Cereal.   

So … how does the food industry get kids interested in their food products? They know that if they can get a child interested in their products at a very young age, they will have a buyer for life.  How do they do this?
Well, the first thing they do is they make sure they have just the right amount of sugar in it. It’s called the BLISS POINT and I  explained it  in last week’s podcast.  in a nutshell,  the Bliss Point is what food industry scientists work very hard to achieve - they design products that children will love by experimenting on children, giving them various pudding recipes for example and asking them which one they like better.  But they don’t have the child SAY which one they like better.  They have the child give it to the stuffed Big Bird that is sitting right next to them. You see, the researchers know that if they ask a kid whether they like ice cream better or broccoli, the kid will say broccoli, in an effort to please, because they know that’s what the adult wants to hear. Kids are smart!  So if you ask the child to give it to Big Bird, you can bypass that desire to please, as well as bypass the need for language. This way they can experiment on really young kids, as young as 3. 

What they discovered is that kids like their foods much sweeter than adults do, sometimes as much as 2-3 times sweeter!

However, this presents its own problem.  Children’s tastes are being formed at these young ages.  They are developing preferences, and of course, with all the sugar in kids’ foods, kids are developing preferences for sweet things that will last them for the rest of their lives.  This is how we develop the “picky eater.”  These kids want only sweeter, processed foods.  They do not have a taste for real foods. 
As food researcher Dr Julie Minella said – and I’m quoting from the book Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss:   “I think that anyone who makes a product for a child has to take responsibility because what they are doing is teaching the child the level of sweetness or saltiness the food should be.”

Hmm… so the food industry scientifically determines the optimum amount of sugar to put in a children’s product by experimenting on children… 
The next thing the food industry has to do is to get the child interested in the product… in other words, market the product to the child. There are 2 ways to do this:  TV advertising, and packaging. Most companies do both of course. 
Just think for a moment about what your favorite cereal was as a kid..  I remember loving those frosted flakes, but I also loved cinnamon toast crunch and cocoa pebbles - you remember the ones with the Flintstones on the box?  That was a big deal to me as a kid. 

Michael Moss talks about the cereal aisle in the grocery store.  There are 200 brands of cereal competing for attention.  The big 3 Cereal Makers are Kelloggs, Post, and General Mills. And these companies spend almost twice as much money advertising their cereals as they do on the ingredients that go into them.
So advertising to children is big business.  The food industry knows that young children can’t tell the difference between ads and programming.  A 1979 Report documented that there were over 7K  TV ads for sweets and junk food.  So this  has been been going on for over 40 years now.  A more recent study  revealed that children who watch 80 minutes of television per day view more than 800 ads for junk food annually!  That’s a lot of ads. And remember how vulnerable little kids are.  They believe what they see. They don’t realize they are being quietly manipulated. They only know that that cereal, or juice or candy looks really good, and when they see it in the grocery store, they WANT IT. I know, I’ve been the victim of this as a parent myself!!
Now here’s the part I find really interesting.  Sometimes the food industry will pretend to be on the parent’s side.  In 2010, Frosted Mini-wheats developed an award-winning marketing campaign called “Mom’s Homeroom.” The idea was to help Moms help their kids do better in school by acting as a one stop shop for school-related resources, including the idea that the child needs to be “Full and Focused” for school with a good breakfast of Frosted Mini-Wheats before school. The marketing genius behind this said “Frosted Mini-Wheats proved that we were not only talking the talk, we were Mom’s true partner in helping her kids succeed in school.” But here’s the deal:  Frosted Mini Wheats will do nothing to help our kids focus. One 25 biscuit serving of Frosted Mini Wheats has 13 grams of added sugar…  which has the opposite effect.  The sugar will make them hyper and unfocused.  

There’s another interesting children’s product: Lunchables.  It’s another one that’s actually more of a product for busy moms who are rushed in the morning trying to get kids’ lunches packed and get them out the door.  Michael Moss, whom I mentioned before,  talks about how Lunchables came to be.  In the late 80s, bologna sales were down and Oscar Mayer was in trouble. They needed to think of a new way to market bologna.  Bob Drane was the guy in charge of marketing at Oscar Mayer, and he was a bit of a genius. He gathered a bunch of creative people at the company and they began to think through ideas. Mothers of school age children had already told them that mornings were tough… trying to get the kids dressed, get breakfast, get lunch made. 

So they decided to try to make this little package of bologna slices, with cheese and crackers.  The way it was packaged, it was almost like a gift that Mom was giving her child on the way out the door. And the kids LOVED them. Lunchables flew off the shelves. Turns out the kids loved them so much because it gave them a chance to play with their food, to assemble it. They were in charge of how they ate them and they loved it. When Lunchable sales started to wane, Oscar Mayer decided to spruce Lunchables up by adding sugar to it – candy bars and Capri suns drinks. They made all different varieties, like pizza lunchables and taco lunchables…. And even now, even though they are not nutritionally sound, with tons of saturated fat and ___grams of sugar, Lunchables fly off the shelves.  They are the perfect kid lunch.
So this is still going on, and the food industry is targeting younger and younger children .  So we have  a dizzying array of toddler milks,  snacks, squeezy packets, all so convenient -- convenient for parents to throw back to the kid in the car seat. But these things are full of sugar, further training children into thinking that all foods should taste sweet.  For example, Gerber fruit yogurt pouch has 5 grams of added sugar.  Some even boast ingredients that are supposed to make children stronger and smarter or boost their  immune system.  Happy Baby Superfood Puffs are a good example of a completely processed baby snack that delivers just a lot of organic rice and fruit puree along with all these processed vitamins.  

I have in front of me here 2 other examples of kids foods that would appear to be healthy:  the first is a yogurt made for kids, it’s chobani gimmies, chocolate chunk cookie dunk yogurt crunch with a picture of a cartoon chocolate chip cookie happily surfing. The packaging says that it’s protein packed and there is nothing artificial in it. But the second ingredient is cane sugar, and this actually has 14 grams of added sugars.  I want to point out that the nutrition information is printed on the front in very faint lettering and it took some pretty strong reading glasses for me to even be able to make it out.  So I would call this a deliberate attempt by the food industry to hide the ingredients from parents who may be trying to work hard feed their kids less junk.  

Another example is earth’s best Organic Sunny days snack bars, Sesame street on the label and a photo of lovable Elmo on the front.  Made with real organic strawberries. But the second ingredient is organic cane syrup, the third ingredient is organic rice syrup. 

So do see how the food industry is doing this?  Just very quietly adding sugar to everything, disgusing it as something healthy so parents will buy it, adding just the right amount of sugar to stimulate the child’s bliss point, and creating food addicts in the process. These children grow up craving food constantly. They become “picky eaters” - vegetables don’t taste good to them because they don’t have enough sugar. 

So how is this affecting our children? ? Well, here are the most recent stats on childhood obesity, this is 2016 data from the CDC:  13.9% of America’s 2-5 year olds have obesity;  18.4% of America’s 6- to 11-y­ear-olds have obesity, and 20.6% of America’s 12- to 19-year-olds have obesity. That’s one in 5 by high school. 1 in 4 high school students has pre-diabetes, and we are now screening 10 year olds for adult onset diabetes.  We actually have an epidemic of adult onset diabetes among our children. Think about that.  As a medical profession, we have a hard enough time trying to help an adult in their 40s and 50s deal with diabetes… but we have no idea how to help someone live with type 2 diabetes for 5 or 6 decades… or if these children will even live that long.  

I also want you to know that what the food industry is doing is costing us far more in health care dollars than the profit they are making.  Listen to this: a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Study found that childhood obesity costs us $14BILLION (with a B) a year in DIRECT health care costs. ­­­­

Please also think about the cost to our childrens’ self esteem -- the effects of sugar in the brain are profound and cause trouble with attention and mood; so many of our kids struggle to stay focused in school and have a hard time regulating their moods, and many become depressed. Many of these children are also the victims of bullying behavior. 

So, I’m concerned for the future health of our children…. are you? I’m not going to leave you hanging  - what can YOU do about this? Here are a few things you can do TODAY to help combat food marketing and throw a dent in corporate profiteering at the expense of our children.
1. Limit kids’ exposure to advertising. Yup. Don’t fall for these food industry marketing tactics. Junk food is junk, no matter what cartoon characters are on the label or how convenient it is. You can suggest they watch channels without commercials (Netflix, Prime, Etc.)
2. Cook and eat real unprocessed foods. This is not easy, I get that. But it’s not impossible.  Can you spend a couple minutes on sunday bagging carrots and celery so that those are on hand to grab instead of fruit snacks?   
3. Avoid giving kids sugary beverages like gatoraid or sodas. How about instead a little ice water with some lemon! Or stick a strawberry or a raspberry in it!
4. Teach kids that it’s important to nourish their bodies with good whole foods that will help them think clearly and give them tons of lasting energy.  
5. Think of non-food rewards for good behavior or for winning the baseball game. Once Covid is a thing of the past… Perhaps a trip to a local amusement park?  Or the movies?  Or perhaps a sleepover, or a new toy. Or perhaps a star on a chart.  I still love those!
So that’s all for today. I hope this has given you some food for thought. The food industry really is working hard to quietly manipulate you to buy their products – to get you to crave, and to get kids hooked at an early age. Next week, we’ll talk about the third C - convenience.  It’s up to us to educate ourselves and to recognize that hey- maybe this isn’t worth it, right?
Take care everyone, and I’ll talk to you next week. 

Dr. Angela


This episode was produced and marketing by the Get Known Podcast Service


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