Walk down any high street and your nose will be overwhelmed by a cornucopia of food smells; Chinese, Indian, Turkish, Italian, fish and chips. Then factor in pubs, cafes, take aways, and street food. Choice has exploded; no bad thing, given that there was a time when the options were limited to fish and chips and – perhaps – your local pub.
Generations growing up today have always known choice. The British diet was once very narrow; now, it is broad beyond imagining. To be unique, food providers need to market themselves as being “the” place to go – and children are a unique demographic that appeal to so many providers.
Obesity amongst children has risen significantly around the world; in the UK, a third of children aged between 2 and 15 are obese, and it is a global problem brought about as a result of varying factors – all environmental – including;
How food is produced and processed.
Poverty, making it hard to buy healthier, often more expensive food.
Urban planning, which deprives childen of exercise opportunities.
Not many opportunities to cook fresh meals at home.
Marketing foods to children and young people, making unhealthy foods attractive.
The UK has some of the strictest rules around what can be marketed to children – and yet junk food adverts are still strong lures for children. After the first regulations were introduced in 2007, children’s exposure to junk food advertising actually increased. The regulations covered advertising around childrens’ programmes, but – as we well know – children don’t just watch those types of programmes, and junk food advertisers increased their marketing around other programmes instead.
There are also plans afoot for a 9pm “watershed” on all junk food advertising both on the TV and online. This legislation is enforced from 2022, so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of impact this will have. At the moment, nearly half of young people aged 11-19 see ads for fast food and fizzy frinks online at least twice a week, and one in five see them daily. There will have to be an impact.
Sugar features heavily in many foods and drinks; putting higher amounts in those aimed at children increase their appeal – and can help increase obsesity. Governments across the world are looking at ways to decrease sugar in child-focused foods and drinks by using their influence, specifically via a sugar tax; manufacturers having to pay a levy when the sugar level goes over a particular amount. This appeared in the UK in 2018, and a lot of manufacturers dropped sugar contents in advance of the tax. Studies show that the tax needs to threaten an increase of at least 20% for it to have any meaningful impact.
There is also an ongoing discussion around “choice”; families choose what to buy at the supermarket, and children choose what to eat on their plate. It’s not as simple as that, of course; parents do need to be responsible when doing their weekly shop, but that’s one factor out of many – I mentioned others earlier on in this piece, and all of them influence a child’s desires. Sugar can be addictive – less of it in foods may make it less so. There was an advertising campaign in early 2020 promoting healthy eating, charting an “invasion” by vegetables that parents were fighting, but they needed their childrens’ help by eating the vegetables to defeat them – “Eat them to defeat them” was the tagline, and it seemed to stick at least in some places; I can attest on a personal level that it was mentioned a lot in our home, and at my son’s school as well.
No one thing will succeed in driving down obesity levels, but a coordinated public health campaign will inevitably cover junk food marketing – and justly so.