You are surely used to see chocolate or candy ads flourishing in supermarkets or online. That’s no surprise as Saint Nicholas’ Day just kicked off the candy-laden season, with Christmas next in line. If adults are tempted, children are even more.

Our little ones are constantly exposed to ads praising foods loaded with sugar, fat or salt. This marketing undoubtedly contributes to fattening their waistlines, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). With one third of European children either overweight or obese, it’s time to act.

Give Me That Chocolate PleaseTogether with our member organisations, we recently campaigned to denounce the wide array of marketing tactics used to appeal to children. One week after our launch, the WHO published a report echoing our concerns, which confirms the issue must be taken seriously.

The marketing of high-sugar and high-fat foods to children is pernicious. It creates an emotional bond between a child and a food product that is as strong as Kellogg’s’ Tony the Tiger. This is part of companies’ strategy to foster children’s ‘pester power’ – i.e. when they beg for a delight so hard that parents give in to cut the circus short. But companies’ creativity does not end here.

Food companies increasingly appeal to children online. They market their products on lots of channels, from video sharing platforms and social media to online games. You name it.

When it comes to children’s health, there is no right season to market unhealthy food.

“Isn’t there a law to halt these practices?” you might wonder. The answer is no. Some EU countries have put in place voluntary guidelines, which food makers are free to disregard. Major food companies have acknowledged the problem and have voluntarily committed to make their marketing more responsible. But their intentions do not go far enough to actually make the difference.

Packaged junk food in vending machineThe main problem is that the industry’s criteria to define which foods can or cannot be marketed to children are too lenient under this voluntary commitment. Such criteria allow for a box of breakfast cereals, 30% of which is sugar, to be advertised during children’s TV programmes. If the industry aligned their rules to those of the WHO, the breakfast cereals they advertise on children’s screens should contain no more than 15% sugar. Too strict, they say.

Food producers have committed that, as of next month, commercials for unhealthy candies or salty snacks should no longer lure children with licensed characters such as Frozen heroines or the Minions. However, brand mascots such as Nesquik’s bunny or Danonino’s dinosaur are sacrosanct marketing tools that companies are not willing to give up, even though these friendly creatures praise unhealthy foods.

So what is the way forward? Companies should think the other way around and strive to make healthy food more fun. If they refuse to stop using their brand mascots and to beef up their criteria that define which foods can be targeted to kids, we do not see other choice than binding rules. When it comes to children’s health, there is no right season to market unhealthy food.

This post is part of our nutrition series. Find more in our online kitchen.

[1] This celebration is held on December 6 in many Western European countries. Children traditionally receive biscuits, chocolates and sweets.

[2] See World Health Organisation. Action in EU countries, p. 10.

Posted by Pauline Constant