Nickelodeon Licensing Characters for Healthy Foods

In an outcry to wean American kids off junk foods, SpongeBob SquarePants (search) is launching his own brand of healthy carrots and spinach.

The popular TV character's marketing move is also thrusting SpongeBob into the middle of a raging controversy over whether the government should rein in commercials that promote junk food to kids.

At stake in the TV fat wars is more than $1 trillion in sales of foods, snacks and beverages, much of it blamed for causing Americans to be overweight.

For SpongeBob and its owner, Viacom's (VIA.B) Nickelodeon network, the appeals to munch on healthy snacks couldn't have come at a better time to grab the do-gooder spotlight.

SpongeBob and his fellow characters on Nickelodeon shows — including Dora the Explorer (search), Sportacus and Stephanie — are plastering their popular likenesses on fresh baby carrots, spinach, fruits and other vegetable packages through licensing deals.

The network's characters are also doing public service announcements and special reports urging kids to turn off TVs and go outside to exercise.

This weekend, the deep-pocketed food industry will square off against health advocates who are mounting a drive to regulate TV ads selling junk foods to kids.

Both camps have cranked up spin machines for an industry-wide conference held by the Federal Trade Commission (search) and Health and Human Services agency in Washington on how to protect children.

"By allowing the food industry to hijack this meeting, the FTC and HHS have abandoned their commitment to children and families," said Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

To blunt growing criticisms, the food industry's main lobby, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (search), will unveil some tougher rules for its advertisers, such as cutting back on product placements.

Health advocates claim the GMA won't limit ads or sales of junk food, even in schools.

"The GMA is on record as opposing every state bill that would restrict the sale of junk food and sodas in schools," said Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Food Choices.