Unhealthy food marketed to kids

Sixty-seven percent of Kiwis support regulation of unhealthy food marketing to kids.

21feb unhealthy food marketed to kids hero1

There’s an appetite to clamp down on unhealthy food marketed to kids.

Cartoon-covered packaging for sugary cereals, Disney-branded biscuits with collectible magnets, TV ads for unhealthy products at peak viewing times for children. Not to mention, junk food marketing online and fast-food joints sponsoring sports teams. It’s almost impossible to avoid unhealthy food being peddled to kids.

Children are a lucrative market for food companies. Kids not only influence what their parents buy (pester power), marketers also bank on shoppers sticking to buying habits they acquired when they were young.

Girl sitting in front of television.

For the first time, we’ve asked consumers about unhealthy food marketing targeting Kiwi kids.

Seventy-eight percent agreed children are exposed to too many ads for unhealthy food and drinks. The majority agreed these ads contribute to childhood obesity (74 percent) as well as influence what parents buy for their kids (70 percent). Only 30 percent thought food ads improve children’s knowledge of nutrition.

Six out of 10 agreed food marketing “really concerns me”. Among those, TV ads were the top worry (79 percent), followed by online marketing (58 percent), sponsorship (42 percent) and product packaging (38 percent).

We also found majority support (67 percent) for regulation of food marketing.

Most (92 percent) of those in favour wanted a ban on TV ads for unhealthy food and drinks when children watch TV. Forty-five percent also backed a ban on the sponsorship of sport and other events by unhealthy food and drink companies. Three out of 10 were undecided.

Why it matters

Children are particularly vulnerable to marketing. Generally, kids younger than four see ads as entertainment and children under eight can’t recognise the purpose of advertising. Between 10 and 12 years, children can understand the persuasive intent but not sales tactics.

It’s important there are regulations to protect kids and there’s evidence food marketing is linked to childhood obesity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, food marketing is directly linked to overweight and obesity, and related harms in children.

We’re losing the battle of the bulge, with the second highest rate of childhood overweight and obesity in the OECD. Latest figures show 29.6 percent of children aged two to 14 are overweight or obese. Numbers are higher for Maori (42.1 percent) and Pacific children (60 percent), as well as children from areas of high deprivation.

Being overweight can lead to heart disease, type-2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and mental health issues. A diet high in sugary foods and drinks can also increase the risk of tooth decay. More than 8700 Kiwi kids require hospitalisation each year to remove rotten teeth.

What concerns you the most?

What are the rules?

Food marketing is mainly the domain of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). It’s an industry-funded body that develops voluntary codes of practice and hears complaints about advertising.

In 2017, the ASA updated its codes and introduced the Children and Young People’s Advertising Code, which restricts marketing of unhealthy food and drinks, especially to children younger than 14 years old. But critics claim it doesn’t go far enough.

A 2020 study published in Nutrients concluded the system doesn’t adequately protect children from exposure to, and the power of, unhealthy food and beverage marketing.

Study lead author Fiona Sing, from Auckland University’s School of Population Health, said out of 16 food and beverage complaints to the ASA from 2017 to 2019, only one was upheld.

“The complaints not upheld included advertising using sports stars and emojis, and suggestions that there were healthy burger and pizza options,” Sing said.

The study also criticised the lack of independence of the complaints board and limited sanctions for code breaches.

Another study published last year in Public Health Nutrition measured food marketing to 34 teenagers through Facebook. While a small proportion (four percent) of ads were food-related, 98 percent of what was served up was for unhealthy food.

Bruce Kidd, study lead author from Auckland University’s School of Population Health, said the study showed digital advertising was another area where the code was failing to protect young people.

Kidd said the sophistication of digital marketing is concerning given Kiwi kids are increasingly spending more time online. The Children’s Media Use Study 2020 found children under 14 years spent the most time watching YouTube and Netflix. A third of children also use social media, such as TikTok.

The ASA disagrees that children aren’t protected by the current system. Chief executive Hilary Souter said setting standards for responsible advertising is the ASA’s focus and the code includes clear restrictions on targeting children under 14 years.

Souter said ASA codes are reviewed regularly, and “complaints and appeals boards have public member chairs and public member majorities alongside industry representatives”.

While companies aren’t fined for breaching a code, there is a financial impact if they’re required to withdraw or change an ad, as well as reputational damage, she said.

The code also has a section on ads that reference sponsorship agreements. It spells out that sponsors can’t show an unhealthy food or drink and ads can’t be targeted at children. However, brands can still sponsor teams or events, such as KFC’s sponsorship of New Zealand cricket and Wendy’s cosying up to the Warriors. Fast food companies, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, also sponsor player-of-the-day certificates for some junior sports.

The main argument for sponsorship is that it provides necessary funding. But Health Coalition Aotearoa chair Professor Boyd Swinburn believes that argument doesn’t fly. “It’s not acceptable for companies selling unhealthy products to sponsor sport and other events. When sponsorship by tobacco companies was banned, other companies stepped up,” Swinburn said.

Appetite for change

Public health organisations have been concerned about unhealthy food marketing to children for many years.

In 2010, the WHO called for governments to implement policies tackling the marketing to kids of foods high in saturated and trans fats, sugar and sodium. Last year, the World Research Cancer Fund’s Building Momentum report recommended mandatory restrictions across all forms of marketing to protect children up to 18 years.

Many health groups here – such as Health Coalition Aotearoa, the Cancer Society, and Healthy Auckland Together – also support regulation. Despite the evidence, Prof Swinburn believes political support for reducing food marketing to kids is non-existent.

“Our current system does little to protect children. The government needs to hold the unhealthy food industry to account, rather than continue its completely hands-off approach. They are also failing to support parents by allowing these persuasive techniques to be so widespread,” Prof Swinburn said.

In the University of Auckland School of Population Health’s 2020 Benchmarking Food Environments report, public health experts rated the New Zealand government’s level of action as “low”, compared with other countries, when it came to restricting unhealthy food promotion to children.

Public health experts also want a child to be defined as under 18 years, consistent with the United Nation’s definition. The current code only recommends “a special duty of care for children aged 14 to 18 years”.

Other countries have shown tougher measures can be rolled out.

In Quebec, there’s a long-standing ban on any marketing directed to children under 13 years. It covers commercial advertising on TV, radio and the internet, as well as through the use of promotional items.

In 2020, the United Kingdom announced a proposal to ban all online marketing of unhealthy food and drinks.

Last year, in coalition with public health organisations, we made a submission to the Review of the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act recommending a mandatory standard within the Food Standards Code to regulate unhealthy food marketing to children.

Support for regulation

We say

  • There’s evidence unhealthy food marketing to children is contributing to our obesity epidemic.
  • We’re lagging behind when it comes to food marketing regulations. It’s time the government took action. Our survey results show most Kiwis support regulation.

10 lunchbox snacks to avoid

For convenience, a packaged snack can be a time-saver to pop in the kids’ lunchbox. But many don’t get good marks for nutrition – they can be high in saturated fat, sugar and sodium. Single-serve products are also an expensive option and lose marks for excess packaging.

Nice & Natural Fruit Watches Strawberry (17g)

Price/serving: 44¢
Energy: 241kJ/serve
Saturated fat: ✔️ <1g/100g (<1g/serve)
Sugar: ❌ 60.2g/100g (10.2g/serve)
Sodium: ✔️ 50mg/100g (9mg/serve)
Packaging: cardboard box, individual plastic packages.

Despite being “99 percent fat-free” and made with “65 percent fruit juice”, these snacks are 60 percent sugar (two teaspoons in each watch) and the reconstituted fruit juice is topped up with glucose syrup and added sugar. Its “tell the time” quiz on the back of the box encourages children to spend time reading the packaging and becoming familiar with the brand.

Arnott’s Tiny Teddy Hundreds & Thousands (23g)

Price/serving: 50¢
Energy: 423kJ/serve
Saturated fat: ❌ 6.6g/100g (1.5g/serve)
Sugar: ❌ 29.3g/100g (6.7g/serve)
Sodium 🟠 292mg/100g (67mg/serve)
Packaging: cardboard box, individual plastic packages.

High in saturated fat and sugar, Arnott’s Tiny Teddies don’t have a place in a child’s lunchbox. To keep you coming back, each box has six different letters and numbers you cut out for a memory game. Collecting all 36 cards means you’ll need to get through plenty of unhealthy snacking.

Arnott’s Shapes Originals Barbecue (25g)

Price/serving: 38¢
Energy: 515kJ/serve
Saturated fat: ❌ 5.2g/100g (1.3g/serve)
Sugar: ✔️ 0.9g/100g (0.2g/serve)
Sodium: ❌ 685mg/100g (171mg/serve)
Packaging: cardboard box, individual plastic packages.

Don’t be taken in by “oven baked, not fried” claims. These crackers are high in saturated fat and sodium and only manage a 2 (out of 5) health star rating.

Verkerks Protein Snack Pack (15g)

Price/serving: 82¢
Energy: 176kJ/serve
Saturated fat: ❌ 7.4g/100g (1.1g/serve)
Sugar: ✔️ 1.4g/100g (0.2g/serve)
Sodium: ❌ 1350mg/100g (202.5mg/serve)
Packaging: individual plastic packages.

Processed meat is not a healthy way to get a protein punch. This “salami snack for strength and stamina” has a whopping 1350mg/100g of sodium per 100g and high levels of saturated fat.

Kellogg’s LCMs Unicorn Bars (22g)

Price/serving: 50¢
Energy: 380kJ/serve
Saturated fat: 🟠 3.1g/100g (0.7g/serve)
Sugar: ❌ 32.3g/100g (7.1g/serve)
Sodium: 🟠 310mg/100g (68mg/serve)
Packaging: cardboard box, individual plastic packages.

With brightly coloured packaging and “unicorn sprinkles”, plus a unicorn treasure hunt on the back, it’s easy to see the appeal to kids of Kellogg’s LCMs Unicorn bars. However, each bar is nearly a third sugar, made up of an array of sugar aliases including glucose, fructose, sugar and glucose solids.

Disney Frozen II Character Cookies (25g)

Price/serving: 56¢
Energy: 480kJ/serve
Saturated fat: 🟠 3.8g/100g (<1g/serve)
Sugar: ❌ 23.1g/100g (5.8g/serve)
Sodium: 🟠 238mg/100g (60mg/serve)
Packaging: cardboard box, individual plastic packages.

These high-sugar biscuits tie in with Disney’s Frozen II movie. Each biscuit portrays a character and each box contains a magnet. There are 12 to collect, so if your little one is set on the set, you’ll need to buy a lot of biscuits.

Healtheries Mittz Chicken (22g)

Price/serving: 83¢
Energy: 414kJ/serve
Saturated fat: ✔️ 1.5g/100g (0.3g/serve)
Sugar: ✔️ 2.9g/100g (0.6g/serve)
Sodium: 🟠 467mg/100g (103mg/serve)
Packaging: plastic packaging outer, individual plastic packages.

Made with 29 percent “real veggies”, these snacks are a healthier option than other crackers or chips. But at 83¢ a packet, you’re better off with some carrot sticks and cherry tomatoes.

Le Snak Cheese Dip with Crispbread Cheese (22g)

Price/serving: 63¢
Energy: 376kJ/serve
Saturated fat: ❌ 15.4g/100g (3.4g/serve)
Sugar: 🟠 5.9g/100g (1.3g/serve)
Sodium: ❌ 985mg/100g (217mg/serve)
Packaging: cardboard box, individual plastic packages.

Claiming to be a “good source of calcium” and a “handy everyday” snack, this Le Snak pack packs a staggering 15 percent saturated fat and is high in sodium.

Arnott’s Fun Sticks Choc (18g)

Price/serving: 50¢
Energy: 355kJ/serve
Saturated fat: ❌ 7.9g/100g (1.4g/serve)
Sugar: ❌ 33.6g/100g (6g/serve)
Sodium: 🟠 240mg/100g (43mg/serve)
Packaging: cardboard box, individual plastic packages.

Arnott’s Fun Sticks have instructions for how to turn them into table hockey sticks. However, it’s not all fun and games when it comes to their nutritional content: Fun Sticks are high in saturated fat and are a third sugar.

GoodnessMe Really Fruity Mix Pack Sticks (15g)

Price/serving: 56¢
Energy: 218kJ/serve
Saturated fat: ✔️ <1g/100g (<1g/serve)
Sugar: ❌ 60g/100g (9g/serve)
Sodium: ✔️ 69mg/100g (10mg/serve)
Packaging: cardboard box, individual paper pouches.

Despite the pictures of blueberries and strawberries on the pack, these fruit sticks and nuggets only contain one percent of each fruit. The rest of the fruit content is pear puree concentrate. Each stick also contains sugar and corn syrup. Sticky fruit products aren’t great for teeth and are a poor substitute for a piece of fruit.

Guide to the profiles: Price is the price we paid in December 2020. We’ve used green, orange and red traffic light criteria to show the saturated fat, sugar and sodium in the products.

Saturated fat (g/100g): ✔️ ≤1.5 🟠 1.6-5.0 ❌ >5
Sugar (g/100g): ✔️ ≤5 🟠 5.1-22.5 ❌ >22.5
Sodium (mg/100g): ✔️ ≤120 🟠 121-600 ❌ >600

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