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6 June 2005updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

The veg that dare not speak its name

A new cartoon show about hungry elves is meant to sell healthy eating to kids, but Dea Birkett finds

By Dea Birkett

When is a carrot not a carrot? When it appears on one of Turner Broadcasting’s children’s channels. Healthy foods have been banished from Elfy Food, at least in name. Turner’s new mini-series is about a gang of five elves whose special powers come from fruit and veg. But in topsy-turvy Turner-world, carrots become “lumo-gooms”, broccoli “turbo-tips” and oranges “c-squirters”. Elfy Food will premiere across Europe in October on three Turner channels: the Cartoon Network, Boomerang and Toonami.

Curiously Elfy Food, despite its declared aim of singing “the virtues of fresh fruit and vegetables to a pre-teen audience”, refuses to use the “f-word” or “v-word”. The publicity boasts that this modest series of six cartoons lasting just two minutes each will “rebrand” fruit and veg in young minds, and compares it to the classic cartoon Popeye. But Popeye grew strong by unashamedly eating spinach, a green-leafed vegetable. In Elfy land, the benefits of Vitamin A are far more heavily disguised. Carrots (sorry, “lumo-gooms”) may make the five elves see in the dark, but their primary purpose is violently to defeat the evil empire of Frank Farter. They are more brandished than devoured. Lumo-gooms become long weapons that the elves bravely wield. Carrots make very good sabres, it seems, and far better sabres than snacks.

It’s no surprise that the Cartoon Network cannot bring itself to name the good guys in the fight to get kids to eat a healthy diet. In real-life Turner Broadcasting, the bad guys are winning hands down and dollars up. For every two-minute Elfy Food broadcast, the network shows up to an hour of advertisements by fast-food companies. About 40 per cent of ads during all children’s programmes are for food, and the vast majority of these are for confectionery, fast food, breakfast cereals, savoury snacks or soft drinks. According to the non-profit Food Commission, a child on average sees more than 5,000 ads for junk food every year. Faced with this sugar and fat overload, the total 12 minutes of Elfy Food will barely make a dent in the diet.

The number of clinically obese children in the UK has tripled in the past 20 years, with the result that one in ten six-year-olds and one in six 15-year-olds are now obese. Experts warn that 40 per cent of the population could be obese within a generation unless urgent action is taken.

But it’s not all gloom and gluttony. There is some small triumph in Turner Broadcasting feeling so threatened that it has to respond. (Interestingly, the programme title makes sense only when spoken in a working-class London accent, making “elfy” sound like “healthy”, and perhaps indicating where Turner thinks fat kids come from.) Kids’ food, or rather obesity (all too often one and the same thing), has belatedly become a hot political issue. The only question is how to deal with it.

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The National Union of Teachers, the food pressure group Sustain, the British Heart Foundation, royal medical colleges and a parliamentary select committee are among the many groups that have called for an end to junk-food advertising directed at children. The government, as ever, is prevaricating, fighting shy of an outright ban and hiding behind advertising and food industry self-regulation.

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The food industry insists that it is not all its fault; obesity, it says, rests on a host of other factors including, ironically, that kids these days spend far too much time as couch potatoes, watching cartoons on the TV, just like those on the Turner network.

Turner Broadcasting confesses that Elfy Food was a defensive measure. “We didn’t want to be restricted about what we could advertise on our channel. We wanted to show that we could self-regulate,” says Richard Kilgarriff, head of Turner Entertainment’s UK operations. You don’t have to be a media expert to see that specialist children’s satellite TV, such as the Cartoon Network and Boomerang, would be hardest hit by an all-out advertising ban on junk food for kids. Ads from the evil empire of high fat and excessive sugar heavily finance the Turner network. Advertising accounts for roughly half of its income – in the region of £25m.

Kilgarriff calls Elfy Food a “balancing act”, to counter the network’s fast-food ads. “You need to fight fire with fire,” he says. But although our five feisty elves may win over the junk-food empire in their two-minute skirmish, they are losing the prime-time war. Their budget simply cannot match that of their opponents, who finance the very channel they serve. Turner has spent just £250,000 to make the whole Elfy Food series, a fraction of the cost for producing a junk-food ad. The only person who is going to feel better after watching an hour of ad-drenched Cartoon Network is Turner Broadcasting’s accountant.

I showed Elfy Food to a group of children. The idea that lumo-gooms were actually carrots was a little lost on the younger ones, especially as these particular lumo-gooms were mega-veg, twice the size of our five elfish heroes. The older kids got the message but were dismissive of it. They all agreed that if you want to teach kids about eating well in a fun way, you might as well devise an entertaining cookery programme, showing how good food is made, with real ingredients. Like someone actually grating a carrot, for example, rather than one Pokemon-style cartoon character using a giant long orange thing to defeat another cartoon character that looks like a piece of chocolate sponge.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect cartoon-making corporate chieftains to be concerned about the kilos our kids are piling on. Surely that’s the responsibility of parents, not programme-makers? But is there not also a sticky fine line between honest advertising, which sets out to sell us something, and not being told the whole truth?

If lumo-gooms and c-squirters are being promoted as “so good for my skin”, as one elf squeaks, why can’t our kids also have the equivalent facts about the health effects of burgers and fries? Why can’t a nasty, overweight troll reveal the ingredients of a Chicken Nugget, as Jamie Oliver so famously did before a crowd of schoolchildren on Jamie’s School Dinners? Or perhaps a spot-ridden sausage could tell us exactly how much grease a burger holds, and how fat can give you heart disease. I may be a little cynical, but surely it is no accident that Frank Farter is the only processed-meat enemy in Elfy Food. Turner’s main advertisers, including McDonald’s, don’t sell frankfurters. Burgers do not make an appearance. Yet surely Baddy Burger and his sidekick, Bun, are obvious enemies for the elves?

So, Turner, why not do as your young audience advises and spit it out? Call a carrot a carrot, and fat content fat content, and we might all live longer – or at least grow wiser.