"There is strong evidence that the television advertising of foods and beverages has influence on what children choose to eat," according to a report published this week by the US Institute of Medicine.

And the IoM doesn't like what it sees on TV - a fact that will alarm some of America's largest food and beverage manufacturers, given the influence wielded by the IoM, a body chartered by Congress to provide health-policy advice.

It calls on trade groups to voluntarily develop and enforce marketing standards that support healthful diets. If such efforts fail to bear fruit within two years, it urges Congress to enact legislation banning ads for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods during children's TV shows.

According to the IoM: "Popular cartoon characters such as SpongeBob and Scooby-Doo should be used to endorse only healthful foods."

The body further exhorts companies to step up the manufacture and promotion of foods and beverages lower in calories, fat, salt and sugar and higher in nutrients. It also recommends the creation of a rating system and food labeling to convey nutritional value.

IoM chairman J Michael McGinnis says there is a sense of "urgency" over extensive child obesity. Some 31% of US children are overweight or at risk of becoming so, which increases their chances of developing health problems such as diabetes and high cholesterol.

Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat, Iowa) who requested the report, shares McGinnis's alarm: "Food marketing is endangering the health of our children, pure and simple."

Responds Richard Martin of the Grocery Manufacturers Association: "The food and beverage industry shares the IOM's interest in reducing childhood obesity" and, he claims, is working on many of its recommendations. The IoM report can be viewed by clicking here.

Data sourced from USA Today Online; additional content by WARC staff