Cartoon Characters and Crappy Food


My son Jack, now 7 ½, has been my supermarket sidekick since birth. Perusing through aisles we talk about food and read labels picking and choosing the familiar and sometimes not so familiar food products to buy. With me as his mom he has no choice but to be aware of where his food comes from and what’s in it. But, he is still a kid! And I want him to be just that. I am not the mom who shrieks if my boy wants to eat some junk food. In fact, I encourage it choosing the “unjunked junk” but there is the occasion that he pushes for the really bad stuff. Hey, he watches television, reads books, goes to school, plays sports and goes to camp—so exposure to it is inevitable.

Instead of battling with him over his intermittent bad food desires, I made the choice a while back to opt into letting him eat some of the things he begs for. Three years ago when shopping at a local market on the way home from school he pestered me for “crushable yogurt”. Said all his friends get to eat it and it has a cool monkey on the package. Hand in hand we walked over to the diary aisle and he reached for Dannon’s new creation. “Mommy, p-l-e-a-s-e?” One look at the smiling monkey and I knew the ingredient list would make me frown—high sugar, artificial flavors and colors. In my head, “GROSS” but to my blond haired, brown-eyed child, “If you want to try this, you can.”

He ripped open the package and started to devour the bright purple-blue foodstuff inside. Quickly coming up for air, “This is disgusting mom!” My kid was pissed. He went on, “How is this yogurt? Why do kids like this stuff? It’s way too sweet and tastes fake.” With that, he stormed over to the garbage and threw out what was left of his cup and the remaining “six pack”. And I let him. A valuable lesson learned—cartoon characters typically mean crappy food.

Do you know that the fast food and junk food industry spends roughly $2 billion dollars per year marketing their food to your kids? And if your kids watch television, they see an average of 10 food-related ads per day. And it doesn’t stop there. Roughly 6 million 3-11 year olds play some form of virtual game online each month and food industry ad spending for this media sector is expected to reach $1 billion in 2014. To boot, 98 percent of the ads they see are for foods high in fat, sugar and sodium. And might I add, packed with other gems like artificial colors, flavors and chemical preservatives.

As a parent, it is your job to provide your child with a variety of healthy foods to choose from and it is their job to decide what they will put in their mouths. That alone can be a great challenge. Now add clever food industry marketing to the mix and your job just got harder! Corporations have taken it upon themselves to tell your children what is “healthy” with the help of character branding whether the Dannon monkey or those darn superheroes. So any way you slice it you are screwed.

But not really! Firstly, there are several organizations that are working to curb food marketing to your children. I urge you to check these out and take action where you can:

And here are some tips to bring awareness to your sidekicks and shopping carts:

  1. With your kids, go through the pantry and fridge and pull out all products with characters on them
  2. Together, read the labels and talk about the ingredients (i.e. how many times is sugar and it’s many euphemisms listed; look for the artificial colors, sweeteners and flavors as well as the chemical preservatives such as the benzoates, BHA/BHT, EDTA and TBHQ)
  3. When watching TV, have your kids count how many food related commercials they see and notate for what foods
  4. Talk to them about why they “want” these foods based on the ingredients they just learned about
  5. Buy a copy of Unjunk your Junkfood and look through with your kids. You can all learn how to find better alternatives
  6. Now go to the grocery store with your kids and make better choices!

When it comes to junk food advocacy and your children Ronald McDonald is your man! He needs to end what he started many many years ago! So as healthy food advocate Anna Lappé says, “It’s time for Ronald to retire.”

Let’s keep this conversation going. Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions. I would love to hear from you!