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Children are highly exposed to food advertising through television, websites, apps, social media and in settings such as sports games, movie theatres and recreation centres.

Exposure to food advertising, which is intended to drive consumption and build brand loyalty, increases as kids get older and have more screen time.

That’s a huge problem since studies consistently find that the majority of food products advertised to appeal to children are far unhealthier than ones that aren’t geared toward kids.

Now, research from the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa support this consensus. The findings revealed that in most cases foods and beverages with child-appealing food packages were low in key nutrients and high in sugar.

Children’s diet, health and food advertising

According to Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada, more than 90 per cent of ads that appear on the top 10 children’s websites are for ultra-processed foods, which are high in sodium, saturated fat and free sugars. These include soft drinks, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, chicken fingers, cookies and candy.

Evidence shows that unhealthy food marketing influences children’s taste preferences, food attitudes, grocery list requests and, ultimately, what they eat.

National survey data shows that Canadian kids consume diets high in sodium, saturated fat and free sugars, nutrients linked to high blood pressure, dental caries (sugar), type 2 diabetes, overweight and obesity. It’s estimated that Canadian kids, aged 9 to 13, consume 57 per cent of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods.

About the latest Canadian research

The study, published this month in the journal PLOS One, evaluated the amount of child-appealing marketing on Canadian food product packages as well as the nutritional quality of foods with such packaging.

“Child-appealing packaging” uses marketing techniques such as intense colours and/or designs that appeal to kids. Packaging could also advertise an unconventional product flavour (e.g., “cheddarific” or “tropical storm”), product shape (e.g., animal crackers, alphabet pasta), games, branded characters (e.g., Toucan Sam, Kraft Bears) or characters from TV shows or movies.

The researchers sampled 5,850 Canadian food labels from a range of product categories including cakes, candies, cereals, drinkable yogurt, granola bars, snacks, juices and pudding. For each product, they examined the Nutrition Facts table and photos of the product’s packaging.

Overall 13 per cent of products had child-appealing marketing. Food categories with the most were toaster pastries, breakfast cereals and crackers. Other products with significant child-appealing marketing included candy, nut butters, syrups, ice cream, applesauce and pureed fruit products.

Among products with child-appealing packaging, more than 82 per cent exceeded Health Canada’s thresholds for sodium, free sugars and/or saturated fat, defined as about five per cent of the daily value (DV) for each nutrient of concern.

Products with child-appealing packaging had, on average, 11.5 g of free sugars per serving (nearly three teaspoons worth), nearly double the amount in products without child-appealing packaging (6.5 g per serving).

While this study was conducted in Canada, kids around the world are constantly exposed to child-appealing packaging. Young children are especially vulnerable to food marketing.

What to do?

Limiting how much time kids spend watching television and using electronic devices can reduce exposure to unhealthy food advertising. Educating children about advertising and teaching them to recognize food marketing techniques can also help.

Even so, it’s impossible to prevent our children from being exposed to pervasive and persuasive food advertising.

According to Dr. Christine Mulligan, lead study author from the University of Toronto, “it’s not fair to children or to parents to be faced with such pressure from the food industry … we need the government to step in to help protect the health of our children.”

Where does Health Canada stand?

Restricting food advertising to children is a key initiative of Health Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy, launched in 2016.

Currently, the government is proposing a policy to restrict food advertising primarily directed at children under 13 years of age within television and digital media (e.g., broadcast television, streaming services, websites, online games, social media, messaging services).

According to Health Canada, for the past three years kids aged 10 to 17 reported television, movies, websites and social media as top sources of food advertising exposure.

Advertising restrictions would be enforced if: 1) the ad is considered primarily directed at children and 2) if the food has added sodium, free sugars or added fat and it exceeds nutrient thresholds for sodium, free sugars and/or saturated fat.

Health Canada is asking the public, health professionals, researchers, industry and professional organizations, as well as other interested parties to e-mail comments on its proposed policy. The consultation is open until June 12.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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