Sugar, salt and fat used to lure kids to 'healthier' food

February 16, 1994|By Bruce Horovitz | Bruce Horovitz,Los Angeles Times

When a single piece of broccoli is tossed into an otherwise innocuous bowl of chopped lettuce, what's left is nothing short of a sabotaged salad. Just ask any salad-wise kid.

But give that same kid a chance to decide what gets glopped onto the lettuce -- say, a pizza-flavored dressing -- well, suddenly that salad has a prayer at passing the kid test. Just ask any kid-wise marketer.

In the mounting battle for the estimated $130 billion in annual product purchases that children influence, the country's big food makers are trying to entice youngsters to nag their folks for groceries that few kids have much cared about -- like salad dressings, yogurt and luncheon meats. The rub is, some marketers are accomplishing this by adding ingredients that kids love but which few parents want their children to eat: sugar, fat and salt.

For years, cereal makers have tried this kids-directed marketing with great success, but now it's fast descending to foods rarely targeted to children.

Yet there are trade-offs. While the pizza and nacho cheese-flavored salad dressings are fatty, they can coax kids to eat more salad.

Several big yogurt makers are adding colorful, sugary toppings -- packaged separately and displayed so kids can't miss them -- in order to get children to at least consider swallowing yogurt. And to attract kids to its newest lunch "kit" of sliced meats and cheeses, one food firm recently began slipping in very visible packets of candy.

The food giants say they are simply selling quality products that appeal to children.

But some marketing experts believe that the food makers may be taking the low road to profits.

"You can turn anything into a junk food if you work on it," says Alex Molnar, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

"All these marketers ask themselves is this: 'Will it sell?' I'm still waiting for one to come out with chocolate-covered broccoli."

Ironically, all of this comes when many food companies are increasingly making healthier foods for grown-ups who are concerned about more fiber and less fat in their own diets.

"What you have are food products getting healthier for adults but less healthy for kids," says Jayne Hurley, nutritionist at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. "I don't know why the trend toward healthier eating has excluded kids."

It is one thing to try to attract children by putting cartoon characters on the product label, "but if you're making a product less nutritional in order to sell it to kids, I call that manipulation," says Dan Acuff, president of Glendale, Calif.-based Youth Market Systems Consulting.

Tested in malls

The companies marketing the new products say they are only selling what consumers tell them they want.

The maker of the new salad dressings, Hidden Valley Ranch, a division of Clorox Co., retained a youth marketing expert who went to shopping malls in four cities and asked 300 kids and parents their opinions on salads.

Late last week, Hidden Valley set up a huge salad bar in front of 200 students at a San Francisco elementary school to see which of its new dressings -- pizza, nacho cheese or taco flavors -- kids preferred. On this particular day, Pizza Ranch flavor reigned king.

Admitted Kenneth Phan, an 11-year-old who was very careful to keep any hint of cabbage out of his salad bowl, which oozed with dressing: "I like the dressing more than the salad."

As for the high fat content of its new dressings -- some 90 percent of the calories come from fat, according to the label -- executives at Hidden Valley say that's not the point. "They encourage kids to eat more salads and vegetables," says Sandy Sullivan, brand manager at Hidden Valley, whose new dressings begin national distribution this month. "Besides, kids need a certain amount of fat in their diets."

(Concerned about the high fat content of these dressings, Samuel Gidding, a pediatric cardiologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, suggests that kids use only one tablespoon instead of the recommended two per serving.)

Some food makers are using packaging as a way to attract kids to products they might not normally consider. By separately packaging sugary toppings in very visible, see-through containers, several yogurt makers are trying to lure kids. Among the most successful is Dannon's, with its Sprinkl'ins brand yogurt and rainbow-colored sugar sprinkles.

"It's a great way to get kids who would not eat yogurt to at least try it," says Diana Allwein, associate product manager at Dannon, who noted the yogurt is primarily aimed at kids 6 to 12 years old.

As for the added sugar, the company says that's no big deal. "Four grams of sugar per package isn't all that much," says Becky Ryan, a Dannon spokeswoman.

(Dr. Gidding, who also serves on the American Heart Association's nutrition committee, said it's far better to add fruit than sugar to yogurt. Most important, he says, is to eat low-fat yogurt.)

Executives at Oscar Mayer Foods recently decided their "Lunchable Funpacks" -- featuring separately wrapped meats, cheeses and crackers -- still weren't attracting enough business.

So they decided to add M&Ms candy.

Sales have picked up steadily since then, say company executives.

But Dr. Gidding has serious reservations about the Lunchables: "It sounds like a nutritional disaster," primarily because of the high fat and high salt content.

To that, Oscar Mayer executives scoff. "This is not some big, corporate plot to fatten up kids. This is what kids want," spokeswoman Jean Cowden says. "There are very few kids out there who will eat rice cakes and tofu."

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