After mounting pressure, food giant Nestlé has announced it will remove the 4.5 Health Star Rating it currently displays on MILO packaging.

As a number of consumer groups, nutritionists and public health advocates have rightly pointed out, Nestlé had ‘gamed’ a flawed Health Star Rating system by calculating the 4.5 rating on an assumption that all consumers used three teaspoons of MILO with less than a cup of skim milk.

However, the bigger issue here is not the Health Star Rating system or how unhealthy MILO may be (the suggested Health Star Rating is 1.5).

The issue is that corporations are exploiting societal concerns about health in order to divert attention from controversial issues, to play a part in policymaking, to shape children as consumers, and ultimately, to profit.

It seems as though almost every food product aimed at children (and their parents – especially mothers) is now ‘healthy’.

MILO is promoted by netballer Maria Tutaia, encouraging children to be in MILO’s ‘Champ Squad’. McDonald’s promotes Happy Meals with sliced apples and bottled water, and sponsors New Zealand Football and children’s player of the day awards. Richie McCaw promotes Fonterra and the ‘Milk in Schools’ programme. Nutrigrain tells the story of how it helps boys become lean, muscular, elite Ironman (and, like MILO, also provides fitness tracking devices). All Blacks continue to endorse Weetbix and Gatorade. The list goes on and on.

When it comes to marketing food and drink – especially food and drink that is often consumed by children – health sells

Current moral panics about childhood obesity, physical inactivity and ‘junk food’ have created profitable opportunities for companies. Advertisers skilfully and stealthily play on our anxieties and obsessions about children’s health to make sure we consume the ‘right’ products (that is, their products).

At the same time, policymakers have encouraged the industry to help reformulate marketing policies and practices.

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Health designed part of its Childhood Obesity Plan in ‘partnership’ with the food and drink industry. They decided the three most important things that industry could do for children’s health was to promote the Health Star Rating system; make a (non-binding, unregulated) Healthy kids industry pledge to provide ‘solutions’ to obesity; and to ‘strengthen’ advertising codes for children – codes that were (and still are) self-regulated by the advertising industry.

Some argue that this is a step in the right direction. I see it as side-step. These new so-called restrictions on marketing ‘unhealthy’ (aka ‘occasional’) food and beverages has actually opened up a profitable window of opportunity for advertisers: the marketing of ‘healthy’ products, lifestyles, bodies, and brands to children.

That’s what happens when you let the fox guard the henhouse.

But what’s the harm in promoting healthy product and lifestyles? Surely this is a good thing? Well, no – not necessarily.

Health is not a one-size-fits-all concept. It is complex and means vastly different things to diverse groups in society. Health is more than just diet, exercise and weight. It can encompass mental, spiritual, social, emotional, environmental, and cultural dimensions – amongst many others.

If we frame health through a more holistic lens, we can also understand how the attempts by advertisers to turn children into healthy little consumers may have unintended, unpredictable, even unhealthy consequences.

What happens when a child thinks the ‘right’, or only, path to health is from consuming certain branded products? Perhaps one that their family can’t afford, or cannot eat for religious or ethical reasons? What happens if a child’s body shape (or ethnicity) is not represented in any of the advertisements that proclaim to be healthy? Or if the simplistic messages about healthy eating and healthy bodies contradict their cultural understandings of what being healthy means?

We need to continue to challenge the idea that health is only one thing; to help our children understand that there are multiple perspectives of health, and a variety of ways and means to be, look and act healthy.

We can support our children to critique the ‘healthy’ marketing messages that bombard them in schools, online, in public, and in their homes. For instance, if a product is advertised as healthy, but uses ingredients that are sourced through ‘unhealthy’ practices, such as child-labour or deforestation, is the product really all that healthy?

And we can apply pressure to government, corporations, industry, advocacy groups, and schools, to encourage them to re-think the place of advertising to children in society. Not merely in terms of junk food or obesity, or what products advertisers should or should not be allowed to promote to children, but whether we should actually allow advertising to children at all.

Watch the video on Darren Powell’s research here:

Dr Darren Powell is a researcher and lecturer in the School of Curriculum and Pedagogy in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. He has received a $300,000 Marsden Fund ‘Fast Start’ grant to research how children understand and experience ‘healthy’ marketing practices.


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