Ultra Processed Foods Aggressively Promoted to Children

Pix: Nutrition Insight

A key driver of unhealthy diets among children today is that unhealthy foods and drinks are ever-present and aggressively marketed, a new Australian study has found.

Manufacturers are targeting children with marketing techniques on the packaging of unhealthy foods. There is widespread, unregulated use of promotional techniques, like cartoon characters, that directly appeal to children, researchers warn.

The study analysed the packages of around 8,000 foods and drinks – including biscuits, confectionery, breakfast cereals, non-alcoholic drinks, dairy, snack foods, and foods for infants and young children – and found that 11.3% of them featured on-pack promotions directed at children. Some 81% of the child-directed marketing was on ultra-processed products.

Children are vulnerable to food marketing

There’s strong evidence food marketing works. When children are exposed to food marketing, such as in ads on social media or on TV, it increases brand awareness, results in positive brand attitudes, and leads to increased purchase and consumption of marketed products.

Even very young children are affected. For example, there’s evidence kids as young as 18 months can recognise corporate labels, at 20 months can associate items with brand names, at 2 years old can make consumer choices, and by 2 to 3 can draw brand logos.

The way food packaging is designed can also have an important influence on what people buy and consume.

The use of techniques such as cartoon and movie characters, gifts, games and contests on product packs has been shown to encourage children to think of these products as tasty, more fun and more appropriate for them.

Kids’ vulnerability to food marketing leaves parents having to juggle competing desires and demands. The concept of “pester power” recognises the power children have in influencing purchasing decisions.

How some countries manage this problem

To protect children’s health, the World Health Organization recommends governments implement policies to restrict children’s exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks across a wide range of media.

In line with those recommendations, several countries have rules in place that ban child-directed promotions on food packaging.

For example, in Chile and Mexico, legislation prohibits the use of child-directed promotions on packaging of products that are high in ingredients such as sugar and salt. These bans are part of broader efforts to address unhealthy diets.

~ Excerpts from the article, “Promotional techniques on junk food packaging are a problem for children’s health – Australia could do better”, The Conversation (14 November 2023)