WASHINGTON — Arrivederci, Apple Jacks. Hello, reconstituted Rice Krispies.

“What are we going to do about Pop-Tarts?” wonders David Mackay, chief executive of the Kellogg Company, when I ask about those wretched rectangles of sugar that my kid brother used to scarf down for breakfast. “That’s probably the most challenging within the portfolio.”

If we’re talking Pop-Tarts, we’re making progress.

For years it’s been obvious that the food industry — more specifically, those companies that push a supersized lineup of ads for nutritional junk on television shows aimed at kids — has played some role in the rise in childhood obesity and the early onset of diseases such as diabetes that can result from kids’ growing girth. Consumer and medical groups have long complained that the ads, which constitute about half the commercials on children’s shows, are hooking kids on sugary cereal and soda, on greasy burgers instead of, say, whole grains. Last year, the Institute of Medicine concluded that television advertising not only influences the “food preferences” of kids under 12, but is also helping to make them fat.

The food industry is at last responding by doing something the tobacco industry did not: acknowledging its role in the health threat, confronting the possibility of lawsuits and regulatory crackdowns, and voluntarily changing its ways.

Kellogg, the largest purveyor of cereal in the world, has just agreed to stop advertising products to kids under 12 if the foods exceed new dietary guidelines for sugar, fat and sodium content. If a product the company now advertises to kids doesn’t meet the new criteria, it is to be reformulated so that it does, or the ads will cease — at least on those shows for which half the viewers are under 12. “Rice Krispies is a good case — its sodium level will need to come down,” Mackay told me in a phone interview. “When we’re looking at sugar, cereal is really probably the area where we’re going to have to do the most work.”

It’s not easy to please a young palate that’s been trained to think that breakfast is supposed to taste like dessert, or to re-educate a kid who has come to believe that the “fruit” in Fruit Loops satisfies a tier on the government’s food pyramid. Fruit Loops, Apple Jacks and Cocoa Krispies won’t make the sugar cut, which requires cereals to have 12 grams of sugar or less per serving if they are to be advertised to kids. Frosted Flakes will.

“The sugar limit is on the generous side,” says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Twelve grams is three teaspoons of sugar.” Well, that’s better than four. And ads for Pop-Tarts, unless the pastries undergo a dramatic nutritional makeover, are effectively “banned from children’s TV,” Jacobson says.

The science group, along with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and two Massachusetts parents, had threatened to sue Kellogg and Viacom, parent company of the Nickelodeon children’s television network, over food advertising to children. Kellogg entered into talks with the groups last year, then made its own announcement of advertising policy and nutrition-content changes ahead of the rest of the industry. Ten of the largest food and beverage companies are expected later this summer to come up with individual plans to address nutritionally suspect foods pitched to children. “I hope that it triggers some real competition to have even stronger standards for marketing to children, both with regard to the nutrients and also where they’re going to market,” Jacobson said of the Kellogg initiative.

The Internet has become a playground for food companies, which use websites to offer kids games and contests galore while pushing their products. Tie-ins with popular media characters and toys (Kellogg’s Shrek cereal doesn’t come close to meeting the company’s reduced sugar requirements) continue to be the rage. Even now, the Kellogg site pushes a new product — Cinna-Mach I Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts — that fails to meet the new sugar standard and simultaneously appeals to kids by promoting Mattel Hot Wheels cars. Mackay says products already linked with cross-promotion contracts will continue to be governed by them until the contracts expire.

So change will come slowly but inevitably — and beneficially. No protracted lawsuits. No contentious fight over regulation.

And the crucial part of the Kellogg initiative is that it won’t just change the ads kids will see — it’s going to change, for the better, the foods they eat. That really is the best to you each morning.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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