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Are 'healthy' foods marketed at children really that healthy?

Posted on 08 May 2013 by Caireen Roberts, Research Director .
Tags: food packaging, healthy eating

Research published this week shows that some foods being marketed to children are less healthy than those marketed to the general population and asks whether more guidelines are needed to regulate food promotion to children.

With the rise in childhood obesity, attention has focused on the advertising of ‘unhealthy’ products high in fat, sugar and salt such as confectionary and soft drinks. However this study compared foods that could be deemed ‘healthy’, namely yoghurts, cereal bars and ready meals and found that a significant number of products marketed towards children were higher in fat, saturated fat and sugar.

The study was carried out at the University of Hertfordshire where I was part of the research team. Nutritional data was collected on products from major UK supermarkets and categorised as children’s or non-children’s products based on the characteristic, promotional nature or information on the product packaging. Fat, sugar and salt content was compared per 100g and per recommended portion size.

What this research highlights is that parents need to be made more aware that ‘healthier’ foods marketed for children are not always the healthiest option. For example, a children’s cereal bar may have less saturated fat than a chocolate bar, but it may have more saturated fat than an adults’ cereal bar. Results from Years 1 and 2 combined of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) show that children’s average consumption of sugar and chocolate confectionery has fallen in the last 15 years and that fewer children are consuming these types of foods perhaps reflecting a move by parents and older children to purchase alternatives such as cereal bars.

The use of cartoon characters and labelling products ‘for lunchboxes’ has a strong influence on children’s consumption and what parents’ buy for them, particularly through ‘pester power’ (requesting particular items whilst shopping) and so manufacturers and retailers have a responsibility to deliver healthful child-orientated foods. At the very least, recognisable characters should be utilised more to promote foods like fruit and vegetables so that children use their ‘pester power’ for their own good.

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