The move by the global kids' entertainment giant is likely to set the pace of food promotion to children, which has increasingly been in the spotlight as childhood obesity rates continue to grow.
Based on the US government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Disney's new policy means that it will only use its name and characters on kid-focused products that meet specific guidelines, including limits on calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar. It also plans to serve more nutritious options and eliminate trans fats from meals served throughout its entertainment parks.
The group's timetable for implementing its new policies is dictated by existing contracts, most of which will lapse in their current form within two years. However, Disney said it expects most of its licensed products and promotional tie-ins to meet the new guidelines by the end of 2008.
These will implement a cap on calories that will deliver appropriate kid-sized portions. Added sugar will not exceed 10 percent of calories for main dishes and side dishes, and 25 percent of calories for snacks. Total fat will not exceed 30 percent of calories for main and side dishes and 35 percent for snacks. And saturated fat will not exceed 10 percent of calories for main dishes, side dishes and snacks.
"The Disney brand and characters are in a unique position to market food that kids will want and parents will feel good about giving them," said Disney president and chief executive officer Robert Iger.
"These are just first steps in an initiative that will evolve over time. But we understand the challenges faced by parents and recognize Disney can contribute to the solution," he added.
The guidelines, which were developed in cooperation with two child nutrition experts, will initially govern Disney's business partnerships and activities in the US, and will be adapted internationally over the next several years.
Disney Consumer Products has already begun to sell many licensed goods that comply with the guidelines. These include breakfast items such as instant oatmeal featuring characters like 'The Incredibles' and 'Kim Possible,' and Disney Garden fresh produce such as kid-sized apples and bananas. Lunch and dinner foods such as Mickey-shaped organic ravioli and other pastas are also available.
And beginning this month in US Disney parks and resorts, kids' meals are automatically being served with low fat milk, 100 percent fruit juice or water along with side dishes like apple sauce or carrots in place of the traditional soft drinks and French fries. Parents will still be able to substitute French fries and soda at no additional cost. Initial tests involving 20,000 kids' meals revealed that as many as 90 percent of parents and kids stayed with the more nutritious option.
Foods served at parks will also be free of added trans fats by the end of 2007, while Disney's US licensing and promotional groups are aiming to meet an end-2008 deadline for eliminating trans fats from products.
Disney also recently became part of a new task force designed to examine the link between TV commercials and the rising rate of childhood obesity. Made up of representatives from the food, television and advertising industries, the Joint Task Force on Child Obesity was established in response to mounting concerns over the impact of product marketing on American children's health. It plans to issue a report based on the work it will conduct, which will be designed to educate parents and encourage best practices for industry.
According to a report issued in September by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), one third of American children are either obese or at risk for obesity. And the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that in the past quarter century, the proportion of overweight children aged 6-11 has doubled, while the number of overweight adolescents has tripled.
The adoption of nutrition guidelines by Disney marks a major step in the crucial association of fun foods with a more balanced diet. But although it is possibly the most significant and extensive move of its kind to date, it is not a first.
In an effort to encourage healthy diets for children, and subsequently to improve brand image, a number of healthy kids' food products have appeared recently, promoted by well-loved cartoon characters.
Del Monte Foods announced a deal with the Sesame Workshop, which in September brought Elmo, Grover and Cookie Monster onto packs of green beans, sweet peas and corn.
And Bugs Bunny, Tweety and the Tasmanian Devil are also in for a piece of the pie, after Ready Pac teamed up with Warner to launch Cool Cuts Ready Snax single-serve packs of apples, grapes and carrots featuring the characters.
Earlier this year, one of the UK's major grocery retailers, Tesco, obtained licensing rights to use Disney characters including Winnie the Pooh and Tigger on branded fruit products, such as apples and bananas.
And competing kids' entertainment brand Nickelodeon in July announced it was teaming up with a number of US food firms to roll out new children-friendly fruit and vegetable products featuring some of its popular cartoon characters.
And although the move was criticized by some as a maneuver to appear responsible, Nickelodeon, which has so far primarily associated its characters with products such as cereal, ice cream and candy, claimed the initiative was part of its commitment to encourage children to eat well, by providing them and their parents with options.