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Cookie Monsters: Oreo Promotion Puts USDA on Wrong Side of Obesity Fight

By Amy Lanou, Ph.D.

This opinion piece was published July 11, 2004, in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Did somebody miss the memo? Most Americans know the latest grim news from the Battle of the Bulge. Simply put, we’re losing. Teen obesity has now reached the highest level in history, and adults are in even worse shape.

So why has one government agency just launched a campaign to convince consumers to eat more cookies?

It’s bizarre but true. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture teamed up with Nabisco and the dairy industry to launch a new promotional campaign: Spell M-I-L-K with specially marked Oreo cookies and you’ll win $100,000.

Another milk-and-cookies sweepstakes—this one aimed at school children—is set to kick off in August. Both are part of the USDA’s dairy check-off program, which is aimed at boosting milk consumption.

As a nutritionist, I’m dismayed by these campaigns. Who’s calling the shots over at the USDA—the Cookie Monster?

There’s no great mystery about what’s making America fat. We eat too much high-fat, high-calorie food. One recent study found that junk food now makes up about a third of our diet.

If anyone doubts that Oreos fall in that category, please consult the nutrition label on the package. Three small cookies deliver 160 calories, as well as a hefty dose of artery-clogging saturated fat. Wash these sugar bombs down with a tall glass of milk and the fat count climbs.

Keep in mind that the USDA’s own researchers have found that three out of four children already consume too much saturated fat. Dairy products and junk food play a key role in this excessive fat intake, which can put kids at risk for serious health problems.

And the Oreo promotion is just the tip of the iceberg. Through the check-off program, the USDA has touted Subway’s BBQ Rib Patty Sub (840 calories and 38 grams of fat), and Dunkin’ Donuts’ Steak, Egg, and Cheese Sandwich (640 calories and 26 grams of fat), among many others. These efforts amount to an obesity promotion campaign co-sponsored by major corporations and the federal government.

Most disturbing, perhaps, is the way these promotions tend to target children. For example, by airing commercials on kid-friendly networks such as Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, the USDA aims to induce kids to push their parents to buy even more milk and cookies.

If poor eating habits simply packed on a few excess pounds, one might shrug this off. But obesity has devastating health consequences. Overweight kids are more likely to suffer diabetes and hypertension. Obese adults are more likely to die of heart attacks, stroke, and some types of cancer.

The grim outcome? Being overweight can shorten the life expectancy of a 20-year-old by three to 20 years, according to one recent study. Over at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts now predict that obesity will soon pass tobacco use as the leading cause of preventable death.

Who gets the blame for the unhealthy eating habits underlying America’s weight problem? On that question, there’s room for debate. Are personal restraint and parental responsibility the most important keys to ending this epidemic? Or does corporate responsibility also play a critical role?

But surely we can agree on one thing: The USDA shouldn’t promote junk food. Our kids don’t need more encouragement to eat unhealthful products—especially from the federal government.

Amy Lanou, Ph.D., is nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Amy Lanou is also the author of Healthy Eating for Life for Children.


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