Junk Food Marketing To Children – Money Rules

I was just having a holiday in Tenerife with my family and felt a bit overwhelmed, about the abundant supply of processed foods everywhere. I know it’s “always” been like that and everyone just wants to relax on a holiday, but for me, food has become the greatest source of well-being. If I don’t eat well, I feel like crap, and I don’t want to feel crap on a holiday! And I know the same goes with my children, even though they are not old enough to think rationally. And that’s the bottom line, children do not have the ability to understand or rationalise what is healthy for them and what is not. Read on to discover some shocking facts on how the food companies take advantage on this.

Nowadays there’s no place on earth where you wouldn’t find a candy store, McDonald’s, sugary beverages and other sugary treats on sale. Every single shop from service stations to a pharmacist is now full of tempting treats. And deliberately set on the child’s height. Processed junk, topped with sugar and a beautiful wrapping paper, children’s favourite characters from cartoons, nice images, and even toys added to them. All of this in order to create an illusion that when you eat this, your life will be a lot of fun and joy, you’re beautiful, handsome and trendy. Although the truth is everything else. By eating the sugars, bad carbs and trans-fats, we end up developing swelling, fatigue, intestinal problems, brain fog, irritability and increased hunger. Everything that you don’t want to feel on a holiday.

I usually prepare our own snacks to go: fruits, nuts, water, and sandwiches. But the temptations around us are irresistible. The question comes to mind, does it need to be this way? What is particularly upsetting, is that the companies target the marketing directly to children. Why wouldn’t the local shops or amusement parks advertise delicious fruits as super treats that are accompanied by Hello Kitty or some other famous figure? Why aren’t healthy smoothies branded by favourite cartoons with advertising slogan: “Healthier, happier and more vibrant life”, for example. Why couldn’t they sell honey sweetened coconut oil based nuts&seeds snacks, that really give people a feeling of satiety and energy, and makes our intestines function better? Because these products don’t bring the money. It’s the processed foods, snacks, and drinks high in sugars that have the highest profit margins. And the easiest way to make processed food cheap, long-lasting and tasty is to add extra sugar as well as table salt and cheap fat.

Huge Money in Marketing to Children

It’s not only in the numerous shops and amusements parks where kids are exposed to junk food, the worse part is the media. The advertising between children’s programs on TV is actually restricted in many countries, but the so-called family programs do not belong into this category. In addition to watching TV,
children spend a lot of time on the internet and social media. It’s surprising how much advertising run in mobile applications made for children.

Group of kids on their mobile deviceThe new report, published by the World Health Organization, calls for urgent action by lawmakers to
acknowledge and address the issue of targeted digital marketing to children. According to Emma Boyland,
one of the researchers in the study, kids are increasingly exposed to persuasive and tailored marketing techniques through advergames and social media sites, particularly in the absence of effective regulations. “We think it’s huge, but parents don’t know,” said João Breda, program manager for nutrition, physical activity and obesity at WHO. ” Interestingly, it is not the content of the apps that the organisation finds objectionable, but the advertisements. WHO now urges to stop online junk food ads on kids’ apps.

Another new research reveals that 2-11-year-old children see 25 million food and beverage ads a year on their top 10 favourite websites. And the ads are not just any food ads, but more than 90% of food and beverage in the ads are specifically unhealthy products.

And what is the result? Our children worldwide are not alright. The fact that our children and youth are bombarded with ads for unhealthy products all day, every day, has life and death consequences. Over half of the population in the European Union is overweight or obese, according to WHO statistics, and every one in three 11-year-olds is overweight or obese and the numbers are only rising.

Key trade associations, companies, and lobby groups relating to sugary food and drinks together spend an estimated €21.3 million euros annually to lobby the European Union at the expense of European public health.

Nobody’s putting the blame on children in any way nor the parents, but instead the untruthful advertising, false claims, and lobbying by junk food industry. All of this shapes the way children think and feel about food now and in the future. Who is able to make the right food choices anymore when every corner is provided with junk food and we are getting this mixed information and instructions on how we should eat? Worst of all, the convenience food industry puts billions of money on lobbying, false statements, misrepresentations of the truth and distortion of the studies. Light Coke is allegedly healthy, as well as sugary breakfast cereal, low-fat dairy products, light versions of this and that… So the food companies claim. But what happens when you remove the fat from the food? It tastes bland and like a cardboard. This has been the biggest mistake food industries has ever made – remove the fat and replace it with refined sugar and claim it’s healthy! And they continue mixing our head by talking about calories. But the thing is, calories don’t work the same way in a lab and inside the body. The body is much more complex system than a laboratory test tube.

obesity

There’s no Money in Health

David Millward recently wrote in The Telegraph News, that what comes to GM-label lobbying between 2007 and 2012, 200 of America’s most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions. This is according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation,  a nonprofit organisation that advocates for open government.

Based on the Union of Concerned scientists, Monsanto, the largest producer of genetically engineered (GE) seeds on the planet, gave more than $420,000 in campaign gifts during the 2010 Congressional election cycle. The European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) in turn stated in its 2010 Scientific Opinion, that there was not enough scientific evidence to set upper limits for added sugars. This still seems to be the main reference for the Commission when asked about the sugar issue, even though four out of five studies they used were industry funded.

What’s especially upsetting, is that marketing is even more abundant to ethnic minority youth. In the US, African-American or Latino children, for example, are more than twice as likely to see an advertisement for candy and soda on TV than their white counterparts. Prevalence of obesity among children and teens in the US has tripled in the last thirty years. A child born in the US today has a 1/3 chance of developing diabetes at some point in his or her life and among African Americans and Latinos, the risk is even higher. And the problems do not end with diabetes, children are also developing high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma and a certain type of cancers. Thousands of children with rotten teeth are having them removed in hospitals, because of the excessive sugar consumption in a form of treats and beverages.

A can of cola typically has nine teaspoons of sugar in it. Some popular drinks have as many as 13. WHO recommends a maximum 6 teaspoon a day so just one can of beverage can be over double the amount!

Free Trade and Sugar Tax

Mexico has become the most overweight country in the world. Almost 70 percent of Mexicans are overweight, and about a third are obese, according to World Health Organization. Mexico has also by far the world’s highest death rates in diseases related to sugar consumption. This all happened after its market had been opened to the US and Canada through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that came into force in 1994 and Mexico was flooded with soft drinks and processed foods containing cheap HFSC (high-fructose corn syrup). Since then Mexico has replaced the US as the country with the highest rates of obesity in the world, as Coca-Cola now controls 73 percent of the Mexican soft drinks market. It is estimated that a consumption of fruits and vegetables in Mexico dropped by some 30 per cent in the last 14 years, replaced largely by processed food and sugary drinks.

road-sign-yiticType 2 diabetes is Mexicos leading cause of death. Surprisingly there are even villages in Mexico, whose village signs are branded by Coca-Cola. There’s constantly big lorries driving into town with a massive amount of beverage bottles. Blissfully ignorant residents don’t often have a clue about the disadvantages of these beverages they buy – with a price of a water. You see even newborn babies drinking Coke between breastfeeding. Coke has even found its place in sacred Mexican rituals as a sacred drink.

In Mexico, they make more limb removals, due to the type 2 diabetes, than anywhere else in the world. However, there’s hope in sight. New sugar clinics in Mexico help patients gain control over diabetes and in January 2014, the Mexican parliament voted yes to a national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and junk food including potato chips, sweets, and cereal. Since then, the consumption of sugary beverages has decreased from 4 litres to 3 litres a week per person. Doesn’t sound like a big difference, but there’s already an improvement in people’s health and in diabetes figures.

In 2010 in USA, about 73,000 non-traumatic lower-limb amputations were performed in adults aged 20 years or older with diagnosed diabetes. In OECD countries together, amputation rates in diabetes have fortunately decreased over the years, but still one amputation every 7 min could be directly attributed to diabetes. 

Mexico has been one of the first countries to implement the tax system on sugar. President Obama considered proposing a sugar tax in 2009 but did not extend the proposal to the Congress. Recently the UK government has published draft legislation for a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, which is set to begin from April 2018. Alejandro Calvillo, founder of the consumer’s organisation El Poder del Consumidor in Mexico highlights that El Poder del Consumidor has been a central actor for civil society to obtain the soda tax and have mandatory regulation of food and beverage within schools in order to keep junk food out of schools. Calvillo and his partners have also played a major role in gaining the government’s promise to limit advertising on children’s television.

More Informed Choices and Real Action

There’s so much that we can do as parents, grandparents, godparents and friends, to prevent this junk food advertising, especially to children. We can put more pressure on policymakers and companies to protect people from this kind of advertisement. We need more campaigns to prevent junk food marketing and selling at schools. No school book covers with cookie ads, please! Oreo cookies have actually done that trick – a school book! Together we can prevent more fast food companies from landing to our neighbourhood by choosing not to buy their products.

We can teach our children more about real food, plants and vegetables and how to use them. We can teach them where the real food comes from, how to grow it, how to prepare a healthy meal, salad or a delicious smoothie. We can teach children how food impacts their health. It’s not just one ingredient or two, but a beautiful symphony of all healthy foods combined together that makes the difference. It can be a lot of fun as well!

Like Anne Lappe, a project director of the Food MythBusters, says: “Let’s leave the parenting and food choices to parents, not for the food companies – children are non of their business”. Watch her great TEDxManhattan talk below about this topic.

It’s comforting to see that there are already a lot of real actions being made. For example in the US, The Corporate Accountability International is currently campaigning against McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook to stop marketing McDonald’s junk food to children. CCFC (Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood) is calling on Niantic to remove all sponsored gyms and PokeStops for any players under age 13 and to not use information about children’s location or gameplay to target them with ads. This was due to the fact that 7,800 Starbucks stores in the United States have become PokeStops and Pokémon Gyms and will serve a new Pokemon GO-themed Frappuccino. This purple drink is high in fat and calories, including the equivalent of 21 teaspoons of sugar for a “venti” with whipped cream! Tech Times had an interesting article recently called ‘WHO Urges To Stop Online Junk Food Ads On Kids‘ By Alyssa Navarro. She interviewed Russell Viner, a professor at the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, who says stricter measures must be put in place to keep kids away from harmful advertisements and that governments must act immediately to do so. Navarro writes that meanwhile, the WHO report recommends several suggestions to address the problem, including the following:

  • Encourage countries to recognise their duty to protect kids from pervasive digital marketing with statutory regulation.
  • Extend existing offline protection online.
  • Extend regulation of internet content to push Internet platforms to remove junk food marketing.

Read about the EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity 2014-2020 here.


Author, activist, and Project Director of the Food MythBusters, Anna Lappe takes on the billion-dollar business of marketing junk food, soda, and fast food to children and teens. With diet-related illnesses alarmingly on the rise, pervasive marketing of junk food to kids is downright dangerous. The food industry says it’s up to parents to raise healthy kids. Lappe agrees, that’s why she says leave parenting to her – and the millions of mums and dads trying to raise healthy kids.

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