Food manufacturers are misleading parents by exploiting legal loopholes and making spurious health claims in the marketing of food high in fats, sugars and salt (HFSS) according to a new report by the UK charity.
The report, How Parents Are Being Misled: A Campaign Report about Children's Food Marketing, which was prepared by The Food Commission on behalf of the BHF, is the first of its kind and specifically investigates how children's breakfast foods and lunchbox snacks are marketed to parents.
It reveals how food companies use five main techniques to play on parent's fears and aspirations and manipulate their ability to make healthy choices for their children. These include using:
- Quality claims to hide true nutritional content. For example Kellogg's Coco Pops Cereal and Milk bars claim to be the "best choice for a lunchbox treat" and use images of grapes and a wholemeal bread sandwich on their packaging to promote the idea of a healthy snack. In reality the product contains a massive 41gm of sugar per 100gm and uses adult guideline daily amounts, misleading parents.
- Selective nutritional claims to distract parents from the full picture. For example Dairylea packaging says it has "no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives added", but just one Dairylea bite contains nearly a third of a child's daily recommended maximum saturated fat intake.
- Selective health claims also deceive parents. A Nestle cereal and Nesquik promotion in Sainsburys magazine claimed its cereals and magic straws can "help kids to maintain strong, healthy bones" and gets them "get up and go in the morning". It does not mention the 58.9gm of sugar that lurks in 100gm of Nestle Strawberry magic straws.
- Emotional insight to empathise with mothers about some of the difficulties in raising a family. In the advert for their 'Deluxe Boneless Box', KFC uses the common problem of mums getting their kids to help with their chores. The advert shows the children volunteering to tidy up after eating a KFC meal.
- Imagery to entice and mislead parents. The Burger King Aberdeen Angus Mini-Burgers with cheese advert depicts a strong motherly figure declaring "the lunch battle is over". The energetic mum, covered in cooking utensils, conveys an image of a healthy home cooked meal. In reality each BK Angus Mini Burger with cheese contains more than a fifth of a child's daily recommended maximum saturated fat intake.
The Food Commission report was conducted as part of the BHF's Food 4 Thought campaign, aimed at tackling the childhood obesity timebomb. Obesity is one of the most significant long-term health problems facing us today.
Latest predictions show that two thirds of all children will be overweight or obese by 2050 and today's youngsters may be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents. (See: One in three UK adults will be obese by 2012: report)
The report also highlights how food manufacturers are exploiting regulatory inconsistencies. Whilst HFSS foods cannot be advertised during children's programmes as few as 1 in 20 programmes most watched by children is covered by this ban. Children and parents are constantly being exposed to misleading adverts during prime time shows like the X Factor which undeniably attract a young audience.
As a result the BHF is calling for the government to ban all junk food advertising on television before 9 pm to prevent parents and children from being misled. The charity is also calling for consistent junk food marketing regulations across all media and for a mandatory front of pack food labelling system to help parents understand the nutritional values of the products they are buying for their children.
BHF chief executive Peter Hollins said, ''It is clear that some food companies are preying on parent's concerns to actively market children's food that is high in sugar, fat and salt. They are manipulating legislative loopholes to find new tactics to entice children and their parents.
''We are calling on the UK government to rigorously limit the marketing of unhealthy foods and make sure that labels are clear and consistent. We're asking parents to join us in campaigning for an end to the techniques that allow companies to mislead them.
''Obese children are more likely to become obese adults and this will have serious implications for future levels of heart disease. We must all play our part to stop this happening.''
Natasha Hamilton singer in hit girl group Atomic Kitten who is supporting this year's campaign said, ''As a mum, I'm always conscious of needing to make sure my kids stay healthy and active.
''We play such a key role in shaping our children's future so from an early age, I've taught my kids to understand the importance of having a balanced diet and that they only have junk food as an occasional treat.
''It's up to us as parents to act now and help protect the health and wellbeing of our children.''