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How to 'Sell' Healthy Food to Kids

Turning the tables on unchecked food industry advertising means using some of the same tactics.

Katie Hyslop 27 Oct 2014Tyee Solutions Society

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

Produced by Tyee Solutions Society (TSS). Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS-produced articles, please see this page for contacts and information.

[Editor’s note: In this ongoing series, Grow, Eat, Learn: School from the Plate Up, Tyee Solutions Society reporter Katie Hyslop visits farms, schools, full-length mirrors and our own kitchen cupboards to examine how we lost our way when it comes to feeding our kids, and how we can get back on the path to wholesome, healthy eating. Find the series so far here.]

While writer, academic, and frazzled mom of picky eaters Karen Le Billon was marvelling at France's unparalleled school lunch program during the year her family lived in the country's north, she was also trying to get both of her daughters, then five and two, to eat foods at home beyond their diet of Cheerios, crackers, buttered toast and pasta.

The French, she learned, had a solution for that problem, too. Meet "taste training." It's something every French parent knows and practices, Le Billon found. And within a year of implementing it, she had her kids scarfing down "a huge range of foods, including beet salad, creamed spinach, broccoli and mussels," she writes in her most recent book, Getting to Yum: 7 Secrets For Raising Eager Eaters.

Where parents rely on Kraft Dinner and chicken nuggets to satiate finicky youngsters, Getting to Yum promises to have those kids eating foods as adult-sounding as mild Thai squash curry, salmon spinach lasagna and guacamole -- with recipes for all three and more conveniently located in the second half of the book.

"We could be teaching kids how to eat just like we teach them how to read, but we don't," Le Billon, now back in Vancouver, said. Yet she predicts taste training will soon be as widespread as potty and sleep training.

"Once parents find out how easy it is, they're amazed."

Le Billon's book backs up that claim with the experience of dozens of families who tested its methods. But teaching kids that healthy food is also tasty is only half the battle. The other half must be fought against the ever-present flood of junk food advertising directed at children.

Le Billon is reluctant to divide the choices into "good food versus bad food." Yet it's impossible to deny the sway the food industry has over kids' appetites since you can't turn on a TV, open a browser, or listen to the radio without being pelted with ads about delicious yet unwholesome foods.

And while adults hopefully have enough media savvy to know those pop stars in soda ads couldn't stay that slim if they really consumed the product they're hawking, kids typically aren't so critical. Tell a pre-schooler a sugar-packed cereal is "magically delicious," and they not only believe it, they beg their parents to buy it.

As Bill Jeffrey, national director for the Canadian office of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, sees it, advertising tricks kids into becoming "agitators" in the family for the foods they see advertised during Saturday morning cartoons or on kid-centred websites.

The centre would like to see the rest of Canada take a page out of Quebec's playbook. Since 1980, that province has banned fast food and toy advertising during TV shows whose audiences are 15 per cent or more under the age of 13. The Centre would like to make it tougher, extending the ban to age 16 or even 18, with stricter pro-active enforcement by government, instead of relying on the public to complain before an advertiser is investigated.

Ads turn kids into 'agitators'

"The stimulus for [Quebec's ban] was this recognition that children are impressionable and it's easy to trick them, and that food and toy companies were taking advantage of that by targeting commercial advertisements at children and trying to manipulate [them]," Jeffrey explained.

The centre links junk-food advertising to children to an increase in juvenile obesity and Type 2 diabetes. He's also incensed by a tactic he thinks is just plain wrong: "As a parent, it's very galling that companies seek out ways to get access to children's minds to persuade them to buy their products."

Detailing all seven courses of taste training secrets took Le Billon an entire book. Here, we'll stick to a taster's menu:

Getting to Yum expands on each of these, suggesting games to play with kids to ease them into trying and eventually loving new foods. It may sound like a lot of work, but Le Billon says each game can be "played" in five minutes, while recipes are designed to keep cooking time down to 10-15 minutes.

"I work full-time and have no help in the home," said the writer, who also works as a geography professor at the University of British Columbia.

"But if you taste train, it takes less time overall [than not]. And because you adopt the motto of "one family, one meal," you're not making multiple meals for your kids, which is what's so exhausting and time consuming."

Become food marketing mavens

Although she emphasizes it's never too late to transform a picky eater -- yes, even teenagers -- Le Billon admits that taste training is easier when kids are toddlers.

"It is a universal phenomenon that kids about the age of two go through a phase where they're wanting to control what they put in their mouths and they get a little selective," Le Billon said.

The technical term for it is neophobia, fear of anything new. Many parents know it better as the fearsome "terrible twos."

But neophobia is exacerbated by North America's pervasive fast food culture. Add on parents' busy schedules and an exasperating toddler who turns down every food except chicken nuggets, and it's easy to surrender to that demand, no matter how unhealthy.

Ironically, in most (non-Quebecois) Canadian kids' lives, food advertising has plenty of time to influence habits. And the more time little minds spend in front of screens, the more the messages of high fat, high sugar, high salt food producers worm their way into kids' brains.

It's hard to know the impact of advertising on Canadian children. There isn't data on what kinds of ads air during kids and family programming in this country. But a 2013 study from the United States found that children and teenagers were exposed to three to five fast food ads a day on TV; ads on social media had increased "exponentially" in the three years since a previous study.

How can parents compete with that? Le Billon recommends fighting fire with fire: engaging in some food marketing of their own.

Researchers at Cornell University in New York state found that kids ate twice as many veggies when they were called names like, "X-ray Vision Carrots," "Power Punch Broccoli," and "Tiny Tasty Tree Tops." Le Billon advises parents to come up with their own names for food they think will appeal to their kids. Your child won't stop singing "Let It Go" from Disney's Frozen? Try offering them Olaf Rice Pilaf or some mashed Anna Bananas.

Not so good at the name game? Just showing your kids how much you genuinely love a food is often enough to convince them to at least try it. A sneakier method is to serve yourself the food, but don't give any to your child. Don't make a big deal out of it, and let them ask, "Hey, what about me?" to foods they previously shoved away.

Taste training doesn't turn the tables overnight. Studies suggest kids will need to try a new food between 8 and 15 times to acquire a taste, Le Billon notes.

"I call it the delicious dozen rule," she said. "You have to understand that most kids aren't going to like something right away, and they have to taste it multiple times."

Another bit of marketing can spin a "neophobic" first (or second) experience to keep taste training on track. "Don't say 'you don't like that' [to kids]," she cautions in her book. "Say, 'You're learning to like that. You just haven't tasted it enough times yet.'"

Fast food advertising nation

But until Canada reaches the point that France has, where just about every child is taste-trained in toddlerhood, all that fast food advertising continues to lead kids into taste temptation.

Along with an absence of research, advertising to children in Canada is subject to no national rules -- just a voluntary initiative launched and run by advertisers and the food industry themselves. Companies joining the initiative pledge either to aim only ads for healthy products at children, or not to advertise to kids 12 and under at all.

There's evidence meanwhile that Quebec's all-out ad ban is having an impact -- on both eating habits and food company sales. One study by then-UBC assistant business prof Tirtha Dhar and co-author Kathy Baylis from the University of Illinois, compared the fast food spending habits of Quebec francophone families and anglophone families in Ontario, where there is no ban. Fast food spending decreased by 13 per cent in Quebec from 1984 to 1992, they found, the equivalent of US$88 million in 2010.

And they noticed something else, in Statistics Canada data from 2005: Quebec, despite having some of the most sedentary kids in the country, also has one of the lowest childhood obesity rates.

The province's ban, the first of its kind in the world, has influenced similar bans in the United Kingdom, Norway and Sweden. An attempt by Ontario's Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to promote the idea there however, although cheered by health organizations, met jeers from the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA), which represents advertisers.

In a report, the Ontario Ministry recommended a ban on advertising online, on TV, in print, on billboards and in-store displays for high calorie, low nutrition food aimed at kids 12 and under.

In a response, the CMA levelled a number of arguments against a ban: child obesity levels are higher in Quebec than Alberta, which doesn't have an advertising ban (although the difference is marginal); anglophone kids see four times more advertising than francophones, because it's easier to regulate French media within Quebec than it is English media entering the rest of Canada from U.S. outlets; and it's hard to know what "child-centred media" is, when many kids are exposed to media that adults also consume, like Hockey Night in Canada, for example.

The association defended its existing self-regulation, but offered to make its voluntary child advertising standards part of its members' code of ethics -- if agreement could be reached on definitions of "healthy" and "unhealthy" food.

Centre for Science in the Public Interest's Jeffrey says even if you agree there are shortcomings in Quebec's legislation banning ads to kids, it should not cause the rest of Canada to abandon the idea altogether. He dismisses the objection that media from the U.S. would weaken a nationwide ban. "While you may be able to watch some programs on American networks," he notes, "a lot of the American programming that you see actually originates from CTV and Global."

In fact, Canada can and does control other advertising that appears on American channels in this country -- as evident to anyone who's tried (and failed) to watch the infamous American Super Bowl commercials on a TV in Canada -- if there were political will to pass and enforce the ban.

'Huge implications' for economy: Julian

New Democratic Party MP Peter Julian has the will, if not yet the votes in Parliament. The New Westminster-Burnaby MP introduced a private members bill to ban advertising to Canadian children under 13 in 2012 and again in October 2013 after a proroguing of Parliament had killed the first version. Bill C-430 has yet to make it past first reading, but Julian is determined to see it become law.

"It's fair to say there has been some minor pushback [so far]," Julian said. "But it hasn't yet come up for debate, and when it does there'll be even more pushback from lobbyists, there's no doubt."

Julian said he expects Liberal and Conservative government members to side with the lobbyists. "But I think as we gradually get more organizations supportive and on board, that we have the ability to push back on the lobbyists, because ultimately I think the vast majority of Canadians would take children's interests over the interest of lobbyists."

Julian had help from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest in crafting Bill C-430's wording. But even though his bill would also apply to toy, cosmetic and drug advertising and promotion directed at children under 13, he is most concerned about the health consequences of marketing high calorie, low-nutrient food to children.

Those consequences in turn have economic ramifications for the country, Julian argues. At least one study suggests that obese individuals cost the health system 30 per cent more over their lifetimes than slimmer counterparts, for the treatment of chronic diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

"There's huge implications for the healthcare system," Julian said. "If we can cut obesity and overweight rates in half by eliminating that ability to target children, then there are real benefits that are undeniable."

With a federal election just one year away, the moment may also be right for the public to show its support for a ban on advertising to kids. Parties have already started the nomination and campaigning process, giving voters an opportunity to question local candidates on where they stand, and to express their own views.

In the meantime, Le Billon suggests that parents can at least partly shelter younger kids from fast food advertising themselves.

"Simply setting limits on screen time has been shown to be beneficial for kids' health," she writes in Getting to Yum. "This is, in part, because exposure to TV food advertising (with its 'snacking = enjoyment' messages) increases calories consumed during and immediately afterwards -- whether or not kids are actually hungry."

Even if all children don't become "taste trained" like Le Billon predicts, a small change like banning advertising to those under 13 could help keep them off junk food -- and their parents backs -- during their most formative years.

Wednesday: The conclusion to this series, ideas with your fries? On giving kids credit for food smarts.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Food

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