Washington SpongeBob SquarePants and characters like him should promote only healthy food for kids, a panel of scientists said Tuesday.
Food marketing strongly influences what children eat, the Institute of Medicine said in a comprehensive review of scientific evidence on the issue.
Overwhelmingly, food and drinks marketed to kids are high in calories and low in nutrition, the report said.
"It's putting our children at risk," said panel member Ellen A. Wartella, psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside.
The report said the food industry should spend its marketing dollars on nutritious food and drinks - and that characters such as SpongeBob, animated star of the Nickelodeon cable TV network, should endorse only good-for-you food.
Some children's advocacy groups said the recommendations don't go far enough and called for a ban on junk food marketing to children.
"If marketing to children affects their food choices, then it's time to stop marketing to them," said Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School who helped found the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
The report said evidence is limited on whether TV advertising directly causes obesity in children. Still, the evidence was compelling enough to call for a concerted effort to change the nature of foods being marketed to children, panel members said.
The panel said marketing has grown more sophisticated, evolving beyond TV commercials to Internet games, coupons and store events, placement in supermarkets and organized word-of-mouth campaigns.