Tony the Tiger is under attack. So are the Rice Krispies elves, the Nesquik rabbit, and some mysterious entity called the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster. Since July of last year, these mascots—and others peddling food high in fat, salt, or sugar—are slowly disappearing from British television. The purge represents the U.K.'s most recent strategy to fight childhood obesity. On January 1, the British government put limits on junk-food advertising during shows aimed at children under the age of 16, and by 2009, they will become stricter. Junk-cereal cartoons will soon become an NC-17 novelty.
Even those opposed to the so-called meddling of so-called food police may concede that protecting our kiddies from junk food is commendable. But what exactly is the junk food that should be kept away from our precious youth? Most parents have a general sense of what's healthy: Oranges make the cut; Oreos don’t. Harder to judge is a nebulous middle ground of foods like cheese, sunflower seeds, and guacamole, all of which may seem wholesome but are also high in fat and calories.
Gauging a food’s health value is even harder for children. Flashy TV ads promoting sugary cereals are as much a staple of childhood as the Saturday-morning cartoons they interrupt (and underwrite). And junk-foodmarketing seems to work. A study released last fall, which found that kids think that food wrapped in the iconic McDonald’s packaging tastes better than the same fare in plain wrappers—even foods that McDonald's doesn't sell, like carrots.
To help separate the whole wheat from the crap, the Office of Communications (Ofcom)—roughly the British equivalent of the FCC—commissioned a team to develop a scientific, objective method for analyzing and evaluating food. The foundation's system purports to categorize a food with space-age precision and assign to it a single numerical value that denotes its ultimate healthfulness.The model may not be the perfect tool the nutrition community dreams of, but now that the U.K.is pushing ahead with its plan, this purportedly definitive health index is now affecting the messages about food—and, presumably, the food itself—that kids consume.
The food-measuring formula, WXYfm (which only sounds like a Sesame Street radio station), took 18 months and more than 50 tries to generate. The team of nutritionists, statisticians, and public-health experts started by studying models generated by food companies, but most were “haphazard” and “nontransparent,” according to Peter Scarborough, a mathematician in the group. “Essentially, they would come up with a line that every food can fit into a healthy diet,” Scarborough says.
The final model is based on the British daily recommended intake, similar to the FDA’s recommendations for Americans. It adds points for “bad” stuff—calories, sodium, sugar, and saturated fats—and subtracts points for the "good" stuff—protein, fiber, and fruit, vegetable, and nut content. The resulting number is the food’s score, which ranges from a virtuous negative-nine (dried and split red lentils boiled without even the mercy of a pinch of salt) to a decadent 28 (restaurant cheesecake). Ofcom considers any food with a score of four or above unhealthy and therefore barred from kids' TV.
Scarborough says the formula accurately rates healthfulness, largely because its sliding-scale nature is more sophisticated and sensitive than previous systems. Earlier methods measured foods independently along different criteria rather than funneling all the data together in one master health rating. The old systems tended to lump together foods that were somewhat unhealthy along with the real junk, Scarborough says. “You can be very close to the number of nutrients [in those models] and not make the cutoff. You’re either in or you’re out.”