Child-appealing packaging linked to poor nutrition as researchers urge marketing restrictions in Canada
09 May 2023 --- Food labels on children’s products in Canada demonstrate a negative association between marketing appeal and nutritional quality, according to a new study investigating advertising power and children’s nutrition.
The researchers urge the government Department of Health Canada to “absolutely implement the proposed regulations” on restricting advertising exposure to children to support health and nutrition.
While examining 5,850 foods, 13% (746) of products were classified as child-appealing from a marketing perspective. The researchers found that the product with more appeal often contained higher sugar levels and had a lower content of “all other nutrients.”
“Implementing marketing restrictions that protect children should be a priority,” reads the study published in PLOS One.
The Canadian government recently published guidelines on advertising and marketing junk food targeted at children, although the policy is not yet mandatory.
Inside the study
The researchers from the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa stress that prior studies evidence how unhealthy food marketing impacts children’s consumption behaviors and taste preferences. In Canada and globally, marketing unhealthy foods to children is an identified public health concern and referred to as “predatory behavior.”
The new study’s findings indicate that products with child-appealing packaging had lower energy contents and higher levels of total and free sugars and sodium. They were also lower in protein content, fiber, iron and calcium compared to products with non-child-appealing packaging.
“Nutrient composition per reference amount between products with child-appealing and non-child-appealing packaging varied greatly by nutrient and food category,” reads the study.
The authors differentiated the marketing approaches used between core techniques (child-appealing visual design, fun or cool appearance and familiar characters featured) and broad techniques (increasing market power but not specifically targeting children).
They found that using the broad technique was more prevalent, with a presence in 90% of products, compared to the core technique, which was found in 13%.
“This [finding] is important given that these techniques would not be captured under marketing restrictions, as they are not specifically ‘directed at children,’ but still increase the product’s appeal to children,” the study underscores.
Canadian government on track?
In 2016, the Child Health Protection Act was proposed in Canada, aiming to federally mandate the restriction of marketing unhealthy foods to children under 13 years old.
“However, this bill was never passed, which is unfortunate given emerging evidence which indicates that mandatory restrictions are effective methods to reduce children’s exposure to marketing for foods high in nutrients of public health concern,” the study notes.
It also notes that many countries have responded to recommendations set by health organizations by either beginning to develop or already implementing policies to restrict this type of marketing for children.
The Canadian government mentions two approaches to reduce the promotion of unhealthy food and beverages for children. One is that it helps publicly funded institutions by working with principles for the food guide-friendly initiative.
While focusing on post-secondary institutions and recreation settings, it aims to support children and young adults' eating behaviors starting at an early age.
The government has also published recommended guidelines, such as limiting screen time and better parent-child education.
By Beatrice Wihlander
This feature is provided by NutritionInsight’s sister website, FoodIngredientsFirst.
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