Disney Goes Healthy

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New, nutritional food items from Disney Consumer Products

Only in retrospect will we recognize the moment at which the American obesity epidemic reached its tipping point, when whole grains and veggies began to trump transfat and fructose. But this week's announcement by the Walt Disney Co. that it will begin limiting calories, fat and sugar in food marketed to childen under the Disney brand pushes our tubby generation a little closer to that threshold.

"Up until a year ago I would have to say [obesity] was a concern driven by elites, meaning groups like the Centers for Disease Control or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the American Medical Association," says Dr. William Dietz, CDC's director of the division of nutrition and physical activities. "But in the last year there's been a real important shift."

Disney has already begun promoting healthy alternatives to French fries and soda in its theme park children's meals, and plans to eliminate added trans fat from park meals by the end of 2007 and from food marketed with Disney cartoon characters by the end of 2008. Changes will be adopted internationally over several years.

By virtue of the millions of meals consumed on Disney property and the persuasive power of the beloved mouse and other animated friends on children, Dietz ranks Disney's new policy as one of three changes in 2006 with potential to significantly impact what kids eat, the other two being nutritional guidelines for snack food and beverages sold in schools negotiated between food manufacturers and the Bill Clinton-backed Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), says the new Disney policy as well as nutritional standards established at companies like Kraft Foods increases the pressure on their competitors. "Companies are concerned about being blamed for the rising obesity rate in children and concerned about bad P.R. and they're concerned about litigation and about the government coming in to regulate them if they don't regulate themselves," Wootan said.

Wootan should know. In January, the CSPI filed notice of intent to sue media giant Viacom, the owner of popular children's network Nickelodeon, and Kellogg for allegedly harming children's health by using popular cartoon characters to market junk food on packaging and advertising on kid-friendly websites and top-rated kids' television shows. Wootan says negotiations with Kellogg are going well, but expects CSPI will sue Nickelodeon.

Dietz sees some companies positioning themselves trying to capitalize on consumers' battle of the bulge. "Companies like PepsiCo invested heavily in making 'better for you' or 'good for you' products which, from their perspective, has turned out to be a wise business decision because those product lines are growing, at least in last year's data, three times as fast as their other product lines," he said.

As promising as each of these actions may be, they remain only fragmentary, half-steps in the face of what Wootan calls Congress' "shameful" refusal to enact strong, uniform standards. What is needed is nothing short of a dietary paradigm shift.

"I hope that my grandkids will live in a food environment that is more healthy, where they are not being constantly bombarded with food and marketing that contributes to obesity and diabetes and heart disease,"says Wootan. "And where a treat is really a treat."