Doctors Skeptical of Food Industry Ad Pledge

But some pediatricians question the nutritional value of the so-called "healthier options" promoted by companies like McDonald's.

"They'll say they're all white meat chicken, but it's still fried and high in fat. So not sure how healthy that is. White meat smushed together? No idea what their food technology is like," said Robinson.

"The healthy alternatives are strawberries and blueberries. Things that have natural nutrients in them. Foods I prefer not to get are ones with high fructose corn syrup. Any food that has HFS is highly processed. You're better off with natural foods, naturally enriched ones," said George Bray, chief of the division of clinical obesity and metabolism at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

Branded From Birth

Robinson, the lead author of a recent Stanford study titled "Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children's Taste Preferences," explains that children as young as 3 years old are able to differentiate between brands.

"Our study found that when a child had two foods, the one they thought was from McDonald's was the one they thought tasted better," Robinson said. "Even for carrots, kids thought [they] were better if [they] came from McDonald's then regular carrots."

The purpose of the study was to measure the effect of children's exposure to brands from birth, including their experience at a restaurant with food, peer behavior and restaurant-sponsored toys.

"The effects were already present with kids 3- to 5-year-olds," Robinson said. "Seventy-five percent of children had toys from McDonald's in their home — three-quarters of the children! When you talk about market penetration, that's pretty amazing to me."

Robinson is convinced that companies can successfully promote healthier options while still turning a profit.

"They're very effective at what they do. I have every confidence they can do it with healthy food items, as they did with junk food. When Atkins became popular, overnight they turned on a dime. You saw low-carb products everywhere. When they see a market opportunity, they have no problem changing the marketing. I think if they wanted to do it, they could do it, and still make a profit."

First Step, Long Way to Go

The Federal Trade Commission is currently conducting a study on food marketing to children and adolescents and has already sent orders to the companies that advertise most frequently to that demographic requesting that they reveal the types of marketing techniques they use.

In the meantime, doctors support the idea behind the pledge to halt that marketing.

"The pledge is a step in the right direction. It's a baby step, but a big one for the big companies," said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Montgomery applauds the food industry's initiative to eliminate the marketing that reaches children, but she remains skeptical of their motives.

"I think it's a move in the right direction. It shows that the food industry is a serious problem, have to do something about it, have to take it seriously. Obviously they do that to prevent government regulation. They know the FTC is doing an investigation of food advertising practices," she said.

"However I think it's very complicated. … As a consumer, as a parent, this company doing this, this company doing that, how do I hold them accountable? If they have clear rules, then you have a level playing field."

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