Hidden dangers in food marketed to children


Worldwide, the prevalence of childhood obesity and its related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have increased dramatically and South African children are part of these concerning statistics.

The figures 

“Prevalence of overweight in children (two–14 years) in the country amounts to 16.5% in girls and 7.1% in boys, with obesity contributing to a further 11.5% in girls and 4.7% in boys,” shows a study entitled "Branding and cartoon character usage in food marketing to children" by Janlie van Lieshout, a registered dietitian at Potchefstroom Hospital.

The purpose of the study is to describe the frequency of television advertising to children, the usage of branding and cartoon characters in the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children aged three to 18 years in South Africa, and was done to obtain evidence to support the policy development.

“Research has indicated that marketing practices aimed at children mainly promote foods and non-alcoholic beverages that are high in fat, sugar and/or salt (HFSS),” she says. 

“When looking further into advertisements of foods to South African children, we saw that they have an influence on a dietary behaviour of a child, and these influence the rest of NCDs and children being overweight in South Africa.”

The impact of such advertising  

According to Van Lieshout, food branding influences children’s nutritional knowledge, food choices, purchasing and dietary behaviours, and can contribute to being overweight. Her study notes that marketing, using cartoon characters and branding, has increased the loyalty and product choice in children. 

The study shows that, a total of 4 916 advertisements were shown on the free-to-air TV channels of which 1 030 (21%) were food advertisements. These ads aimed at children mostly included products such as sweets, confectionary, snack foods, sugared beverages, pre-sugared breakfast cereals, sweetened milk, and dairy products. Healthy food advertisements, on the other hand, accounted for the minority (1.4%) of ads.

Powerful tool 

Mariaan Wicks, a senior lecturer at North West University says: “Marketing is a very powerful tool and we should therefore limit the marketing of unhealthy foods and try to promote healthy food marketing. Food branding influences food choices and influences food preferences. We eat what we like, so unfortunately children at a very critical period of their lives don’t understand the link between food and health."

Regulating the industry

Wicks’ research is aimed to develop a framework for regulating the marketing of high in fat, sugar and/or salt (HFSS) foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children in South Africa with the support of an appropriate nutrient profiling model. This framework was submitted the Department of Health in 2017 and is currently awaiting response.

“We recommend that this framework is legislated to regulate the marketing of foods to children in South Africa to support the Strategy for the Prevention and Control of Obesity,” Wicks says.  

Although advertising is not the only contributing factor leading to obesity in children, it is considered to be one of many factors contributing to children being overweight. “Therefore, it is necessary for the food industry to engage in responsible food marketing aimed at children in order to take one step forward in the prevention of obesity and NCDs in children,” she says.

– Health-e News 

Image credit: iStock

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