Over half of children's food products too high in sugar, fat and salt, new research shows

Date published: 07 June 2019

Over half of food and drink products with popular cartoon characters on their packaging are high in fat, sugar and salt, according to a new survey.

In the biggest survey of its kind, new research by Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, in association with the Children’s Food Campaign, found 51% of 526 food and drink products which use cartoons to appeal to children are unnecessarily high in fat, saturated fat, sugar and/or salt.

Manufacturers and retailers are accused of ‘deliberately manipulating’ children and parents into purchasing ‘dangerously’ unhealthy products, which can encourage pester power and excessive consumption.

The health groups are calling for a complete ban of such marketing tactics on unhealthy products and for compulsory ‘traffic light’ nutrition labelling, giving parents the chance to make healthier choices. 

If marketing on children’s packaging were to follow the same advertising codes as set by the Committee for Advertising Practices for broadcast advertising, half would fail the eligibility criteria and therefore would not be allowed to be advertised to audiences under the age of 16.

Currently, the government’s latest consultation is discussing further advertising restrictions for products high in fat, salt and sugar.

Over one in five products (21%) used licensed characters often well recognised by young children. More than a third (37%) were found on confectionery, chocolate, cakes and ice cream, which are not recommended for regular eating.

Shockingly, 32 of the 94 products surveyed (34%) using licensed characters have a red label for either fat, saturated fat, sugars and/or salt, classifying them as being unhealthy.

In a Children’s Food Campaign Parents’ Jury survey in 2018, more than 9 in 10 parents said they supported the government bringing in restrictions on the use of child friendly TV and film characters on foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

The use of these characters, and associated toys, was the second highest issue of concern for parents in terms of junk food marketing tactics used to target children, after TV advertising.

Meanwhile, of the 434 products that use brand mascots and characters appealing to children, a staggering 53% would receive a red (high) warning label on pack for sugar.

Previous research by Public Health England found children have already exceeded the maximum recommended sugar intake for an 18-year-old by the time they reach their tenth birthday.

Astonishingly, only 18 healthy food and drink products (such as fruit, vegetables and water) used on-pack child friendly animations. Lidl came out as the best retailer in that respect with their Oaklands range of fruit and vegetables.

The majority of products did not have ‘traffic light’ nutrition labelling, making it difficult for people to work out at a glance what is and isn’t healthy. Action on Salt and Action on Sugar are calling for mandatory ‘traffic light’ nutrition labels on front of pack. 

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Glasgow found health claims made on product packaging foods marketed towards children are “confusing” and could be a contributor of rising childhood obesity rates.

Registered Nutritionist Dr Kawther Hashem, Campaign Lead at Action on Sugar based at Queen Mary University of London, said: “It’s shocking that companies are exploiting the health of our children by using cartoon characters on their high sugar food and drink products, particularly on chocolates and sweets, which are already hard to resist for children.

“Do we really need to entice children to want these products more and pester their parents to buy them? It is time for regulation to curtail the industry’s unhealthy habits.”

Councillor Sara Rowbotham, cabinet member for health and wellbeing at Rochdale Council, said: “We strongly support any action which tackles the marketing of unhealthy options to children using cartoon characters. Marketing to children in this way puts unfair pressure on families to provide their children with unhealthy food when they ask for it.

“Our Healthy Heroes cartoon family is a great example of how characters can communicate positive messages to children and we encourage people who work with children to use the resources we offer on our website.”

You can visit www.rochdale.gov.uk/Rochelle to download resources or to hire the Healthy Heroes Rochelle costume.

In 2016, the government launched its 10-year childhood obesity plan, introducing a nationwide tax on sugary drinks, an age-limit on purchasing energy drinks, reducing children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020, clearer labelling and making school food healthier.

The plan also aims to introduce further measures to be consulted on, including a 9pm watershed on television advertising of unhealthy food and drink, ban price promotions and ban price promotion by location, such as checkouts.

Read more - childhood obesity: are we really doing enough for our children’s health?

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