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Given the choice between a fast-food hamburger and a plate of steamed vegetables, most children will opt for the former.

But some consumer and health advocates wonder whether that's a matter of taste preferences or the influence of advertising.

The answer to this question is at the crux of a debate on marketing high-fat foods to kids.

Despite calls from government and healthcare professionals to reduce the level of fat in children's diets, the average consumption-36% of total calories from overall fat and 14% from saturated fat, as estimated by the government's National Cholesterol Education Program-is still considered too high. Childhood obesity is on the rise, increasing the risks of hypertension, heart disease and diabetes later in life.

Healthcare advocates are putting at least some of the blame on food companies.

"Marketers have done an absolutely pitiful job of controlling themselves," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest. Referring to surveys of children's TV conducted by CSPI, he adds: "Children's TV is filled with junky toys and junky food."

A recent study by a team of Columbia University researchers would seem to back his claim. They found the percentage of high-fat foods advertised during Saturday morning children's TV viewing time increased from 16% to 41% of all food advertising between 1989 and 1993.

Fast-food marketers like McDonald's Corp., Burger King Corp. and Wendy's International, and pizza companies like Pizza Hut and Little Caesar Enterprises are seen as the biggest culprits.

"I understand that marketing is part of doing business, and I don't have a problem with that," says Lisa Cohn, nutrition director of the Children's Cardiovascular Health Center at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and a co-author of the study. "[But] where does the conscience come in with regard to educating children on good nutrition?"

Opinions like these presume marketers are responsible for children's health-a point that's been debated for decades.

Rena Karl, editor of the newsletter Marketing to Kids Report, argues that parents must make the final decision on what their kids eat.

"The No. 1 responsibility lies first and foremost with the parent and probably secondly with the schools. To stick advertisers with the burden of controlling kids' eating when their first mandate is to sell their product is unfair," she says.

Bob Lepre, a principal at marketing consultancy New England Consulting Group, thinks most marketers are working hard to make their products as healthful as possible.

"Marketers do have a responsibility to market with an eye to health and nutrition, but they also have a responsibility to market products that kids will buy," he says.

And there's the rub, according to marketers.

Rob Doughty, VP-marketing communications for Pizza Hut, notes the chain has twice tested lower-fat pizza products. "Even when the customers said that they'd welcome such items, when we tested them they failed miserably," he says.

"We're walking a tightrope between trying to make our products as healthful as possible and pleasing the market, which just does not accept the taste of lower-fat products right now."

Offering low-fat products for children is more complicated than it sounds.

When Clorox Co. came out with a kids' line of Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing late last year, the products had to have the same fat content as full-calorie salad dressing and slightly higher levels of sugar to make them appealing to children, says Sandy Sullivan, manager of marketing and environmental communications.

"It's a Catch 22. Salad dressing is fat. But we don't just eat raw vegetables with nothing on them, and we all need a certain amount of fat in our diets. If we can get kids to eat their vegetables with a little dressing, I say great," Ms. Sullivan says.

Anne Altmaier Adriance, a senior VP of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York, and head of the agency's Kid Connection division, says even products considered healthful for kids, like cereal or yogurt, can't focus on nutrition in their advertising.

"Kids don't care about it like their parents do. There has been a history of products failing after trying to make nutrition the primary driver in ads to kids," she says. Two cereals that did so, General Mills' Body Buddies and General Foods USA's Post's Halfsies, are now defunct, she notes.

"We have a responsibility as marketers and we have to be concerned with it, but marketers don't make or advertise what won't sell. And I don't think it's up to marketers to lead consumers in that sense," she says.

Still, previous consumer and government objections over children's food have led to marketing adjustments. In the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission threatened to ban ads for high-sugar cereals on Saturday morning TV. Although the commission didn't carry out its threat, there's been an awareness of nutrition from cereal marketers since then.

"Advertisers have to be very clear about what their product is, and the importance of a balanced diet. As long as you put your product in that context, you've done your duty," says a General Mills spokesman.

But consumer advocates argue high-fat food marketers could still do more to fulfill their responsibilities to kids.

Mr. Jacobson notes that unlike fast-food chains, Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi-Cola Co. have avoided children's shows. "If there were equal time for well-produced messages on nutrition from these companies, it would be terrific," he adds. "One PSA a Saturday will not do it."

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