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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 October, 2003, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Do you want broccoli with that?
As "junk food" is partly blamed for rising obesity, fast food chains are starting to revise their menus with healthier options. Could their mammoth marketing punch tempt children to pester for carrot sticks instead of chips?

"Wash the carrots, eat them from the bottom and discard the top." This advice, sternly issued by health officials to Manchester primary schools on how to introduce children to the common root vegetable, was much ridiculed last week.

But is it so impossible to believe that children might not be au fait with how to consume the UK's favourite vegetable?

The carrot advice was part of a 42m nationwide initiative to put fruit and veg in young stomachs. An undoubtedly serious amount of money, but a raindrop in the deluge of advertising spend aimed at tempting young people to chow down sugary breakfast cereals, chocolate bars and fast food.

"It's David versus Goliath," says Professor Gerard Hastings, whose recently published report - The Effects of Food Promotion on Children - prompted the Food Standards Agency to consider restricting the advertising of certain brands and slapping health warnings on packaging.

Peeling carrots is child's play, or maybe not
While ads for sweets and fizzy drinks have been around for as long as independent TV, in the past decade fast food outlets have increasingly bought commercial slots during children's programming on weekday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings, according to the report from the Centre for Social Marketing at University of Strathclyde.

"The advertised diet varies greatly from the recommended one," it says of commercials invariably showing lithe actors munching on processed foodstuffs that - if consumed regularly - would soon see them pile on the pounds.

Childhood obesity is on the up with 8.5% of six-year-olds and 15% of 15-year-olds in England being classified as obese by the Department of Health. Many experts are pointing the finger of blame at sedentary lifestyles, but pre-prepared fatty foods are increasingly coming under the heaviest fire.

But there is some cause for optimism. The report says that while the fast food marketing machine does influence children's diets, "this influence could just as easily be positive as negative".

Salad solution

Professor Hastings says fast food chains are "very good" at marketing their products. "If we could harness that; if one could turn itself into an outlet really pushing healthy foods, we'd be delighted. Children's salads would be the perfect solution."

Couscous salad
Some fast food chains are starting to offer salads
Food Dudes, a 500,000 project devised by University of Wales at Bangor, already uses the kinds of cartoon superheroes (and a villain, "General Junk") common in snack food ads to push fruit and veg, in the hopes children will pester their parents for carrot sticks rather than chips.

But in the UK, McDonald's is also already offering apple and grape pieces as a substitute for French fries in its children's meals - if you pay an extra 59p.

And yet, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) said last week that "two-for-one" or "meal deal" offers encourage people in the UK to eat too much and that even single portions have increased in size in recent years.

Obesity, it reminded us, increases the risk of breast, colon, endometrial, oesophageal and kidney cancers.

Intimidation claims

Experts have been slow to pick up on the potentially harmful effects of "junk food", says nutritionist Andrew Prentice. Giving evidence recently to the Commons health select committee, Professor Prentice said "the food industry is intimidating people and scientists such as myself".

Burger King
Burger King now offers a reduced fat chicken burger
"Somehow there has been very little research on obesity and fast foods... I think we scientists are actually to blame: even if not in an explicit way, we have subconsciously been intimidated from looking at the problem."

But the pressure valve is starting to be released, with speculation that fast food companies could be made to follow tobacco firms into court. In January a lawsuit brought by a group of overweight teenagers against McDonald's was dismissed by the New York courts.

Yet that is by no means the end of the story, according to a report published earlier this week, by Richard Daynard, a law professor.

The ruling left the door open for future actions against food chains, says Professor Daynard, who stresses that tobacco litigation also began as "small and scorned".

"These companies know that the lawyers are now looking over their shoulders and that's a good thing," says Prof Daynard. "We were mocked over the tobacco lawsuits initially, and look where it got us."


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