Researchers at the University of Calgary found most foods in Canada targeted to children haven't nutritionally improved despite World Health Organization guidelines restricting marketing based on sugar, fat and salt content. Their study was published in the journal Nutrients.
In both 2009 and 2017, researchers found 88% of children's food wouldn't be allowed under WHO's guidelines. While the number of products making better-for-you claims and "fun appeals" significantly increased, the amount of sugar increased, fat stayed the same and sodium dropped, the study said.
Researchers concluded stricter marketing guidelines are needed for children's food products. "Given the poor nutritional profile and compelling marketing appeals, this study reveals the critical need to consider the regulation of packaging — both in Canada and internationally — as part of the strategy for creating an 'enabling food environment' for children," they said.
Although WHO developed guidelines for marketing children's food in 2010, its recommendations have apparently not resonated much with food manufacturers. The guidelines called for international action to limit the impact on children "of marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt."
Nine years later, however, many products marketed to children in Canada still don't meet those recommendations. In fact, researchers said front-of-pack nutritional claims and marketing strategies targeted to children have increased since then, as did the amount of sugar in some products.
The most common nutrient threshold exceeded was sugar, which is not surprising considering other studies show many consumers find foods too sweet. A total of 72.9% and 77.3% of products contained too much sugar in 2009 and 2017, respectively. About 16% of products were considered high in fat, but those with excess sodium per serving size dropped from 12.1% of products in 2009 to 5.3% in 2017.
Still, the general nutritional picture was not pretty. The study found a few manufacturers did make significant changes. Kellogg's Frosted Strawberry Pop Tarts hadn't changed serving size, sodium or fat levels from 2009 to 2017, but did reduce its sugar load. Other products, including Quaker's Dino Eggs Kid's Oatmeal, decreased serving size but kept the fat content per serving the same. And General Mills' Lucky Charms was the only product analyzed that had less sugar, sodium, and fat per 100 grams in 2017.
Many manufacturers ramped up marketing appeals to parents and children in the past decade. The study noted nutritional claims directed at parents were on 31.4% of products in 2009, and that more than doubled to 85.6% in 2017. Many of these claims had little to do with a product's healthfulness. Gluten-free and nut-free claims were four times more common in more recent products, while those citing no artificial flavors or colors more than tripled from 11.6% in 2009 to 35.3% in 2017, the study found.
Methods used to attract children included special fonts and cartoon images, which increased between 2009 and 2017. Fun fonts went from appearing on 86.4% of products to 94.7%. Cartoons went from appearances on 69.2% of products to 85.6%. But kid-sized packaging and games and activities included with products dropped during those years, researchers added.
Without any teeth behind WHO's recommendations — or until some national nutritional and marketing guidelines are implemented — the situation isn't likely to change. In the meantime, adults who buy kids' foods will have to assume more responsibility to make sure children in their care have healthy things to eat, and not just products targeted to them.