The health claims made on the product packaging for many foods marketed to children in the UK are ‘confusing’, and could be fuelling rising rates of childhood obesity, suggests research* published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Stricter regulations are needed for food labelling and product content, urge the researchers.
Child-focused marketing techniques, using cartoon characters, toys, games and promotions (cards and vouchers), have long been an advertising staple. But the use of health and nutrition claims is a more recent trend, note the researchers.
And the evidence suggests that when such claims are made, they create a positive impression, known as the ‘health halo effect’.
Steps have been taken to control children’s exposure to adverts for products high in fat and sugar, such as sweets, chocolates and sugar sweetened drinks, acknowledge the researchers.
But rather less attention has been paid to other foods carrying product packaging claims suggesting that they contribute to good health/nutrition, they point out.
They scrutinised the energy, fat, sugar, and salt content of foods marketed to children above the age of one, and widely available in various large food retail outlets in the UK.
They focused on products with child-focused imagery and health and nutrition claims on the product packaging, including terms such as “one of 5 a day”.
In all, 332 different products, including breakfast cereals, fruit snacks, fruit-based drinks, dairy products, such as yogurts, and ready meals were assessed, using the broadcast regulator’s tool (Ofcom NPM) to identify so-called ‘healthy’ food.
This scores the nutritional quality of foods, based on the energy, total sugars, saturated fat, salt, fruit/vegetables/nuts, fibre, and protein content from the product labelling information.
The calculations showed that a large proportion of the products, including those commonly perceived as ‘healthy’ (41%), were classified as ‘less healthy’.
Cereal bars had the highest energy and saturated fat content, while cereals had the highest salt content.
Fruit snacks had the highest sugar content, averaging 48 g/100 g, but still made the 5-a-day claim, in many cases.
One in three products contained concentrated fruit juice as an added ingredient while one in four used pureed fruit.
Nearly a quarter of the products, most of which were fruit-based drinks and snacks, made ‘no added sugars’ claims. But half had concentrated juice or fruit puree as the added ingredients.
“Processed fruits are perceived by the public as a healthy natural alternative to added sugars, but because of the breakdown of the cellular structure they potentially have the same negative effect on weight gain as other forms of sugar, which is why they have recently been classified as free sugars in the UK,” note the researchers.
Many products (over 41%) made 5-a-day claims, most of which were fruit drinks, ready meals, and fruit snacks. Processed fruit, concentrated fruit juice, or puree appeared as ingredients in nearly half (just over 44%) of these products.
But despite most (82%) of them claiming to contain one portion of fruit or vegetables, three out of four didn’t contain the recommended 80 g portion size. And half of the products making 5-a-day claims didn’t specify whether these were adult or child size portions.
The serving size for most (nearly 95%) fruit-based drinks exceeded the recommended 150 ml limit for fruit juice, yet the fruit and vegetable portions for most products were below the recommended portion size.
The findings indicate that “health and nutrition claims used on product packaging are currently confusing,” say the researchers.
“Prepacked foods targeted to children can be consumed as part of a ‘balanced and healthy’ diet, yet their health and nutrition claims remain questionable. Given the current rising rates of childhood obesity, the consumption of less healthy foods may have long-term negative implications on child health,” they write.
“Stricter regulations on product composition, food labelling, and marketing techniques are required to discourage the promotion of foods which might be considered obesogenic,” they conclude.
Commenting on the findings, Dr Max Davie, officer for health improvement for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said: “Given the UK’s rising levels of childhood obesity, is it essential that parents and children know precisely what is in the products they consume and are not mislead by manipulative marketing campaigns.
“This study reveals concerning findings, particularly the disappointing levels of fruit and veg in products claiming to contain at least one portion of the government’s recommended 5-a-day.”
He continued: “It is clear that families are being influenced by surreptitious food packaging, and we strongly support the researchers’ call for stricter regulations on composition and labelling.
“Alongside, there needs to be better education and advice available for parents so that they can see through crafty messaging and make their own decisions about what they consider to be healthy products for their families.”
* García AL, et al. Confused health and nutrition claims in food marketing to children could adversely affect food choice and increased risk of obesity. Archives of Disease in Childhood. Published Online First: 04 April 2019. doi: 10.1136/archdischild-2018-315870