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Despite Supporting Evidence, Disney Sets Nutrition Guidelines And ‘Limits’ Advertising To Only Meet Its Standard

Assessing PMA’s Dues Restructuring

Disney made an announcement regarding its acceptance of advertising on programs geared for young children:

Under Disney’s new standards, all food and beverage products advertised, sponsored, or promoted on Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior, Radio Disney, and Disney-owned online destinations oriented to families with younger children will be required by 2015 to meet Disney’s nutrition guidelines.

The nutrition guidelines are aligned to federal standards, promote fruit and vegetable consumption and call for limiting calories and reducing saturated fat, sodium, and sugar.

It was praised by virtually everyone, including First Lady Michelle Obama:

…First Lady Michelle Obama has called the move a ‘game changer‘ for the health of US children.

At the Disney press conference, Michelle Obama said: ‘As parents, we know that whatever is on TV is what our kids are going to want.’

‘I remember… going to the grocery store with the kids, and the minute you walk down the aisle the kids are singing some jingle, or they’re pulling on your leg begging you, pleading you for whatever they saw on TV. And as a mom, I know how that makes it even harder for us to keep our kids healthy.’

Even the Produce for Better Health Foundation felt compelled to chime in with a press release titled, Two Thumbs Up for The Walt Disney Company:

Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., R.D., president and CEO of Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), was among several invited guests of The Walt Disney Company to attend a special event in Washington D.C. earlier today. The company introduced their new standards for food advertising on food programming targeting kids and families. The Walt Disney Company is the first major media company to introduce such standards.

“The Walt Disney Company has supported PBH and promoted our message aimed at adults and children to eat ‘more fruits and vegetables, whether fresh, frozen, canned, dried, or 100% juice because it matters for their better health’ for the last several years,” says Pivonka. “Their new standards are another way The Walt Disney Company is demonstrating their commitment to better health and the increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. The new standards are a perfect complement and support mechanism to the recommendation to make half the plate fruits and vegetables, whether fresh, frozen, canned, dried or 100% fruit or vegetable juice. I commend them on adopting these standards and look forward to continuing to work with their committed staff for years to come.”

Now we look at this and certainly see clever positioning. Disney manages to get the First Lady of the United States of America on its side. Yet it actually didn’t sacrifice very much. Bloomberg reported the whole issue is insignificant for a company of Disney’s size:

Walt Disney Co. (DIS)’s plan to bar junk-food advertising from children’s programming would have cost less than $7.2 million in television ad revenue if it were in effect last year, according to estimates by Kantar Media.

That’s the amount that Disney generated from beverage and food commercials aimed at children in 2011, the New York-based research firm said. The figure is less a 10th of 1 percent of Disney’s total annual advertising sales. The company reported ad revenue of $7.6 billion for its media networks in its last fiscal year, an increase of 8 percent.

Disney claims the numbers are inaccurate, but even if they were off significantly, it still would be an insignificant issue. Remember, the Kantar numbers include ALL advertising of food aimed at children, not just products that violate the new Disney standards. In truth, many major food advertisers such as Nestle have already pledged to reduce or eliminate the advertising of less healthy foods to children, so it is not even clear there is much advertising out there for Disney to decline to run.

Beyond the PR significance, we are not prepared to join the hallelujah chorus on substantive grounds.

The First Lady’s point that children may want things they see advertised is surely true, but the proper response to that is for the First Lady to urge parents to be adults and fulfill their responsibilities to their children, which includes not buying things they think are inappropriate.

As a public health advocate, PBH’s endorsement of this troubles us because there is no science that says choosing to occasionally eat foods that violate the Disney standards causes any health effects at all. Carvel likes to advertise that Father’s Day should be celebrated with a Fudgie The Whale cake. Now a diet of Fudgie The Whale cakes is not likely to win any endorsements by nutritionists, but eating a slice of ice cream cake once a year is not known to cause any bad effects at all. So why shouldn’t Carvel be able to promote its product?

The whole approach violates the nutritionists’ maxim: “There are no good or bad foods, only good or bad diets.”

The project also lacks humility. The truth is that we don’t know very much about the impact of various ingredients on mortality. Take salt. Disney trumpets that its standards include sodium, and Elizabeth Pivonka points to the fact that Disney’s standards will lead to reduced sodium in the foods as if there is incontrovertible evidence that healthy people should reduce their sodium intake.

In fact, such evidence is scanty and, in fact, reducing sodium may actually do harm. The New York Times recently ran a piece by Gary Taubes titled Salt, We Misjudged You:

…this eat-less-salt argument has been surprisingly controversial — and difficult to defend. Not because the food industry opposes it, but because the actual evidence to support it has always been so weak.

When I spent the better part of a year researching the state of the salt science back in 1998 — already a quarter century into the eat-less-salt recommendations — journal editors and public health administrators were still remarkably candid in their assessment of how flimsy the evidence was implicating salt as the cause of hypertension.

“You can say without any shadow of a doubt,” as I was told then by Drummond Rennie, an editor for The Journal of the American Medical Association, that the authorities pushing the eat-less-salt message had “made a commitment to salt education that goes way beyond the scientific facts.”

While, back then, the evidence merely failed to demonstrate that salt was harmful, the evidence from studies published over the past two years actually suggests that restricting how much salt we eat can increase our likelihood of dying prematurely. Put simply, the possibility has been raised that if we were to eat as little salt as the U.S.D.A. and the C.D.C. recommend, we’d be harming rather than helping ourselves. …

In the years since, the N.I.H. has spent enormous sums of money on studies to test the hypothesis, and those studies have singularly failed to make the evidence any more conclusive. Instead, the organizations advocating salt restriction today — the U.S.D.A., the Institute of Medicine, the C.D.C. and the N.I.H. — all essentially rely on the results from a 30-day trial of salt, the 2001 DASH-Sodium study. It suggested that eating significantly less salt would modestly lower blood pressure; it said nothing about whether this would reduce hypertension, prevent heart disease or lengthen life.

While influential, that trial was just one of many. When researchers have looked at all the relevant trials and tried to make sense of them, they’ve continued to support Dr. Stamler’s “inconsistent and contradictory” assessment. Last year, two such “meta-analyses” were published by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international nonprofit organization founded to conduct unbiased reviews of medical evidence. The first of the two reviews concluded that cutting back “the amount of salt eaten reduces blood pressure, but there is insufficient evidence to confirm the predicted reductions in people dying prematurely or suffering cardiovascular disease.” The second concluded that “we do not know if low salt diets improve or worsen health outcomes.”

The idea that eating less salt can worsen health outcomes may sound bizarre, but it also has biological plausibility and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, too. A 1972 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the less salt people ate, the higher their levels of a substance secreted by the kidneys, called renin, which set off a physiological cascade of events that seemed to end with an increased risk of heart disease. In this scenario: eat less salt, secrete more renin, get heart disease, die prematurely.

With nearly everyone focused on the supposed benefits of salt restriction, little research was done to look at the potential dangers. But four years ago, Italian researchers began publishing the results from a series of clinical trials, all of which reported that, among patients with heart failure, reducing salt consumption increased the risk of death.

Those trials have been followed by a slew of studies suggesting that reducing sodium to anything like what government policy refers to as a “safe upper limit” is likely to do more harm than good.

So, we are confronted with a big company burnishing its reputation by doing something that costs it nothing, the First Lady of the United States endorsing the notion that American parents are a bunch of irresponsible people without backbones who are helpless before a child who has seen a TV commercial and the Produce for Better Health Foundation endorsing a dubious criticism of individual foods rather than diets, while endorsing health claims that simply are not proven.

Disney may win because its reputation gets enhanced, the President may win because it looks like his wife is doing something useful when it comes to public health, and the Produce for Better health can hope to get more support from Disney for applauding its efforts.

The evidence that any of this will lead to more healthful children — zero.

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