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. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBlues bury Kings early with four first-period goals 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. The panel said growth in new food products targeted to kids has been huge, from 52 in 1994 to nearly 500 introduced last year. Obesity rates have tripled over the past 40 years for kids and adolescents from ages 6 through 19, raising their risk of risks of type 2 diabetes and a range of other diseases. Food and beverage companies said they’ve taken many steps the committee recommended, making products healthier, shrinking some package sizes and touting healthy lifestyles. “The growth in the food and beverage industry is in healthier foods,” said Richard Martin, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “There’s been a sea change in the last couple of years, and I don’t think that’s very well-reflected in this report.” SpongeBob has helped sell spinach and carrots as part of a Nickelodeon campaign with former President Clinton to get kids to eat healthy food. But SpongeBob also has appeared on ice cream, Pop-Tarts, candy bars, lollipops, Pez, brownies, Rice Krispie treats, macaroni and cheese, cheese crackers and other products. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!