Has the extent and nature of food promotion targeting children fallen since industry self-regulation was introduced

Adam is a Public Health Specialist with Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council. He started the MPH in 2010 on a part time basis whilst in his previous employment as a Stop Smoking Specialist Advisor, completing the course in September 2012. Adam enrolled on the course because of his interest in health and saw it as an opportunity to increase his knowledge, expertise and further his career prospects.
The title of Adam's research project was 'Has the extent and nature of food promotion targeting children fallen since industry self-regulation was introduced'.

Background: Evidence has grown linking children’s exposure to the targeted marketing of foods high in fats, sugar and salt (HFSS), to poor dietary preferences. In response the UK has introduced self-regulatory advertising restrictions imposed in the broadcast and non-broadcast media of foods HFSS aimed at children 4- 15 years of age. This study aimed to investigate the extent of food promotion aimed at children in the supermarket environment by comparing the results with that of a previous study conducted in the UK immediately following the introduction of industry self- regulations in 2007 (1).

Methods: Nine supermarkets selected from the top three UK retailers, located across Sheffield  were surveyed to quantify the number of products using promotional techniques aimed at  children across eight foods categories; confectionary, sweet biscuits, crisps, dairy snacks,  cereals, tinned pasta and beans, fruit and fruit juices and soft drinks. Products identified as using promotion aimed at children were then classified as ‘healthy or ‘less healthy’ using the Food Standards Agency nutrient profiling system (2).

Results: Eleven percent of products surveyed used promotional techniques deemed to be aimed at children, with an increase of 5.5% of promoted products classified as ‘less healthy’, compared to 2007. Three previously unrecorded promotional techniques were identified in 2012, ‘Olympic theme’, ‘Ideal for lunch boxes’ and ‘on pack entertainment’, with a reduction in ‘cartoon character’ promotions from 2007 (1).

Discussion:The use of promotion techniques aimed at children to advertise products were identified to have increased since the introduction of industry self–regulation. Furthermore promotion increased on foods that were deemed to be ‘less healthy’. In addition food manufacturers were found to be using new promotional techniques on foods classified as ‘less healthy’. Food promotion at the point of sale continues to expose children to undesirable products, calling for tighter legislation and policy to ensure children are protected in the supermarket environment.

Recommendations: The findings from this study indicate that current regulation needs to include the restriction of all food packaging employing child friendly images and themes, in addition to a whole-government response to promoting healthier food environments.
As yet, legislation has not been used as effectively as in other areas of health concern such as tobacco use. For example, Australia has successfully introduced legislation controlling tobacco packaging, requiring all tobacco products be sold in plain packages, with no logo or imagery on their products, reducing their appeal to children and adults. Similar strategies could be applied to all foods HFSS. Alternatively introducing ‘fat taxes’ as employed in Scandinavia, where foods classified, as HFSS would be subject to greater tax, would help to reduce the availability of unhealthy foods. Such policy would provide an opportunity to take advantage of commercial approaches to move the in-store marketing environment towards promoting and selling more healthy nutritious foods. It has been shown that point of purchase promotion such as brand, cartoon, licensed and unlicensed characters attract children to a product, however little research has investigated the specific effects such promotional techniques have on consumption of healthy food products, such as fruit and vegetables. An extension of this study would be to investigate which promotional techniques would encourage children to eat ‘healthy’ foods.

1. Julian, A. Holdsworth, M. (2008) Food promotions used to attract children in UK supermarkets. Proceedings of the Nutritional Society, 67
2. Food Standards Agency (2009) Guide to using the nutrient profiling model: Food Standards Agency Web Site [online]. Available from: http://food.gov.uk/
northern-ireland/niyoungpeople/nutlab/nutprofmod#.UFJVCBjBeHK[Accessed 20th July 2012]