Who’s Buying That Stuff?

“Junk” is such an unkind word, especially when applied to food. Certainly, no manufacturer would label its own product as junk. The “Smart Choices” program used the euphemism NTL (or “nutrients to limit”) as a descriptor for certain not-so-smart choices. The program, instituted by food corporations in 2009, was meant to “provide a voluntary front-of-package labeling program that could promote informed food choices.” Having barely gotten off the ground, it ended only a couple of months after it began.

Fourteen major companies decided to put green check marks on the packaging of products they deemed healthful, but when the logo appeared on Froot Loops and Fudgsicles, critics descended in droves. Forbes writer Rebecca Ruiz said:

The uproar over the program has conveyed a definitive message to industry: Don’t try to disguise a nutritional sin with a stamp of approval.

“Energy dense nutrient poor” (EDNP for short) is another term that was coined to avoid rudely calling products junk, but is basically just a way of using four words to denote what could be said with one: specifically, junk.

“Only once in a while or on special occasions” is an more verbose way to say the same thing. That term came into being at around the same time, suggested by the We Can! Program, which categorized edibles as GO Foods, SLOW Foods, and WHOA Foods. The WHOA foods, of course, are the once-in-a-while/special occasions kind, exemplified by french fries, doughnuts, bacon, buttered popcorn, gravy, and almost every known dessert.

This brings up the question of whether any child still exists who recognizes that “Whoa!” is the command to make a horse or a draft animal slow down or stop. More recently, “Whoa!” expresses the need to pause a conversation momentarily, in order to fully comprehend it. The exclamation also denotes surprise, interest, or even great pleasure. Should the word have been chosen to mean “don’t eat this”?

The official industry hat

In the popular TV series 30 Rock, the character Frank established his individuality by wearing each day a different hat with a new slogan lettered on it. One of his hats read “PARTIAL FOODS,” a play on words specifically making fun of the Whole Foods grocery chain. But “partial food” is also a pretty good description of processed products built around a substance that started out as actual food, even if genetically modified, before being mixed with other substances bearing a more distant relation to nutrition.

Dr. Pretlow sees the importance of pointing out “the issue of kids being used to push highly pleasurable foods, in light of the fact that there is a childhood obesity epidemic, and food addiction appears to be a very likely culprit.”

One way to use kids

In 2011, researchers at Johns Hopkins University wondered how, given that small children have neither cars nor credit cards, and indeed can barely even keep a supermarket cart on a straight course, so many brightly-colored packages festooned with cartoon characters find their way into American homes.

Dina Borzekowski, senior author of a study published by the Journal of Children and Media, wrote:

Our study indicates that… one’s familiarity with commercial television characters was significantly associated with overall and specific types of nagging. In addition, mothers cited packaging, characters, and commercials as the three main forces compelling their children to nag.

This gave a name, the “Nag Factor,” to one of the ways in which children are used by clever and profit-driven corporations. The academic folk even differentiated the parent-harassment that they observed into three types, labeled “juvenile nagging, nagging to test boundaries, and manipulative nagging.”

The manufacturers have learned that there is no need to sell to parents. It is only necessary to convince the child, and then depend on her or him to make the caregiver’s life miserable until the desired item is deposited in the cart, ready to be laid on the moving belt at checkout.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Smart Choices Fails,” Forbes.com, 10/23/19
Source: “How do children convince their parents to buy unhealthy foods?,” PsyPost.org, 08/15/11
Photo credit: mroach via VisualHunt.com/CC BY-SA

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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