obese teenagers walking down a trailNestle, the global food giant known for Kit Kat, Haagen-Dazs, Hot Pockets, Baby Ruth and other supermarket brands, has teamed up with the American Academy of Pediatrics to educate consumers about childhood obesity.

The union, announced last week in a press release on the academy's website, is supposed to develop a series of nutrition aid messages over the next 18 months. The messages will be tested in focus groups with English and Spanish-speaking parents of children younger than five years.

"Doctors have been telling us we don't have enough plain-language material given to young families," Dr. Judith Palfrey, an AAP spokeswoman and past president of the society, told Consumer Ally. "It is hard for folks to figure out how to do the five servings of fruits and vegetables to their kids."

But the initiative, bankrolled by the company that also sells Gerber Graduates Lil' Entrees, a toddlers' pasta dish that contains 550mg of sodium, more than twice the amount of salt in a medium order of McDonald's fries, compromises the academy's independence, consumer advocates say.

"This kind of association poses a real conflict of interest," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in an interview. "Getting this funding from Nestle will make a difference in the Academy's ability to criticize Nestle, if there is reason to criticize it."

Earlier this year, two of Canada's leading scientific organizations awarded the national "Salt Lick Award" to the Gerber meal in order to highlight the inappropriately high levels of sodium added to children's foods. The Swiss conglomerate was criticized two years ago for refusing to join Coca-Cola, Kraft, Cadbury and other food manufacturers in an industry-wide effort to limit junk-food marketing to kids. And over the summer, the company drew fire for driving a barge down the Amazon river to sell its products to communities of indigenous people.

Still, AAP contends Nestle's role is limited to providing money for conducting the nationwide surveys, and will not extend to influencing the messages themselves. Palfrey said with health literacy sorely lacking in the U.S., the initiative is sure to bring improvements to childhood nutrition.

"The obesity epidemic is an enormous challenge and is hitting Hispanic populations even harder," she noted. "With the focus groups, we'll be reaching out to more families in the primary language of a lot of children."

Nestle sued the academy in 1993 because of its opposition to the marketing of baby formula directly to consumers. Also named in the lawsuit were infant formula manufacturers Abbott Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Mead Johnson Nutritionals.

The Nestle-AAP nutritional guidelines, when finally approved, will be distributed to consumers in doctor's offices and clinics.

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