In: fruit crisps and milk. Out: Twix and Coke.

Companies like Kraft are stressing nutrition for kids, and sales of healthy products from smaller firms soar.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Fruit crisps and whole-grain Lucky Charms from General Mills. Low-calorie flavored-water versions of Capri Sun pouches from Kraft. Dozens of brands touting "100 percent juice" labels.

The growing chorus of concern about childhood obesity - with the accompanying legislation, lawsuits, and media attention - at last seems to be reaching the food industry. And in at least a few cases, it's having an effect, though observers differ on how meaningful the changes are.

Last week, soft-drink companies announced they would pull high-calorie drinks out of schools, selling only limited sizes of water, milk, and 100 percent juice in elementary and middle schools, and no full-calorie sodas in high schools. Disney recently decided not to renew its cross-promotional agreement with McDonald's, reportedly in part because of concerns about junk-food associations. And at this week's Food Marketing Institute Show in Chicago, a number of companies are emphasizing "low in sugar" and "high in nutrients," especially when it comes to food for kids. That follows Kraft's lead from last year, when it decided to limit children-oriented advertising to its "sensible solution" products.

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"The food industry is very worried these days about being blamed for the rising obesity rates, and they should be," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

For the companies, it's a race to prove they can make enough changes themselves so as to make further regulation unnecessary - while still making sure their products are something kids clamor to buy.

For Kraft, that's meant changing the sugar and calorie content of their products, without changing the products all that much. "Kids don't care that it's only 40 calories," says Laurie Hirsch, Kraft's health and wellness director, pointing at sugar-free Kool-Aid. "They want to know it tastes good, it's fun, it's cool.... And moms want to buy things their kids are going to eat."

The company makes sure that kids can play back the difference after seeing ads - asking for, say, the more nutritious "Supermac & Cheese" instead of the standard one. And the policy became an incentive to those developing new food, who realized that they could advertise only the ones that fit the nutrition guidelines.

While Kraft is arguably the leader in this area among major brands, others are rushing to join them. PepsiCo has kept its traditional products - and still advertises them to kids - but has stepped up development of its "better for you" ones. General Mills converted all its cereal to whole grain (though some critics still cite high sugar content), and also created nutrition requirements for the products it advertises to kids.

"We believe our actions speak louder than words, and that our advertising demonstrates our commitment," says Tom Forsythe, a General Mills spokesman.

But not everyone agrees, and a few critics see all such changes as mere window dressing that still allows big companies to push junk food on kids.

Last week, a report from the Federal Trade Commission urged companies to revise their marketing strategies to kids, noting that obesity has tripled among adolescents in the past 25 years, and doubled among younger children. A report from the Institute of Medicine in December made a stronger call for action, asking Congress to mandate changes if the food industry doesn't do enough in the next two years. It took companies to task for their TV advertising in particular.

"We need laws to protect children from corporate predators," says Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, a public-advocacy group in Portland, Ore. He favors laws that, among other things, would ban TV advertising to kids younger than 12 and keep ads out of schools.

Actions like the beverage association's decision to get soft drinks out of schools are little more than PR, he says, since they're not binding.

Meanwhile, the many new state regulations, along with the prospect that federal guidelines for school nutrition will soon be revised, have created a niche for healthy kids' food that many other, smaller companies are rushing to get in on.

At the All Things Organic show - connected to the Food Marketing Institute one - kids' products were the focus of a major display. "We've been doing 100 percent juice for 32 years, but they're knocking on our doors now," says Jeff Damiano, director of marketing for Apple & Eve, after listening to someone from the Houston school district ask about his juice boxes.

And many companies are trying to make their products as cool as Tony the Tiger or Disney characters. Nature's Path has started an EnviroKidz line that features colorful animals on their organic cereals, waffles, and bars. Amazin' Raisin is pushing strawberry- and pineapple-flavored raisins sold in bright pouches that are a far cry from the old Sun-Maid boxes. And the new organic Rokkits energy bars have a sleek packaging with iPod-like silhouettes of skateboarders and mountain bikers.

"To find products that pass the regulatory threshold but that kids actually want is the trend we're playing off," says Todd Woloson, president of Izze Beverage Co., which says school business for its sparkling juices has skyrocketed. "This was an unforeseen business for us."

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