Innovative camera research from Otago and Auckland Universities found children were frequently exposed, across multiple settings, to marketing of unhealthy foods not recommended to be marketed to children.
Most common were ads for sugary drinks, fast food, confectionery and snack foods, and the most common marketing medium was product packaging, followed by signs. Lead researcher Associate Professor Louise Signal says the study provides further evidence of the need for urgent action to reduce children’s exposure to marketing of unhealthy foods.
“Children in the study were exposed to unhealthy food ads in multiple places via multiple media – including an average of seven unhealthy food ads at school and eight in public places.
“These junk food ads are littering children’s lives,” says Associate Professor Signal, from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, Wellington.
Children are more than twice as likely to be exposed to unhealthy food marketing compared to healthy food marketing. The research suggests that our children live in an ‘obesogenic’ world – one that promotes obesity as a normal response to their everyday environment.
The researchers are calling for urgent Government action to clean up the junk food advertisements surrounding children to help reduce obesity.
“The findings are a real concern given high rates of obesity amongst New Zealand children and the known influence of marketing on children’s food choices,” says the overall programme director Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu from the University of Auckland.
The study, Kids’Cam, is a world first. The researchers used automated wearable cameras and GPS units to study the children’s world. One hundred and sixty-eight children between the ages of 11 and 13 took part in the study, wearing the devices that recorded photos every seven seconds and locations every five seconds over four days.
The children were randomly selected and recruited from 16 randomly selected schools in the Wellington region.
Today’s research was published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition & Physical Activity and reports on the main study, Kids’Cam Food Marketing, which examined the frequency and nature of children’s exposure to food and beverage marketing.
Junk food marketing contributes to the worldwide increase in childhood obesity by encouraging the repeat purchase and consumption of unhealthy foods. The World Health Organization (WHO) Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) recommends that such marketing should be reduced and that ‘settings where children and adolescents gather (such as schools and sports facilities or events) should be free of marketing of unhealthy food and sugar-sweetened beverages’.
In New Zealand, the industry self-regulating Children’s Code for Advertising Food states that ‘food advertisements should not undermine the food and nutrition policies of Government, the Ministry of Health Food and Nutrition Guidelines nor the health and wellbeing of children’.
“Our research shows that this is clearly not working. It is time for government regulation of food marketing,” says Associate Professor Signal.
Making healthy choices
The WHO report also stated that nutrition and health education must be included in school curriculums, and to make food preparation classes available to children, their parents and caregivers.
The Empower programme does just that. Run by not-for-profit partners Garden to Table and Life Education Trust, Empower aims to equip Kiwi kids with practical, hands-on knowledge about nutrition and growing food. It was launched in March this year and already, schools all over the country have signed up.
Garden to Table Ambassador Niki Bezzant says one of the keys to solving the obesity crisis is education.
“It’s a big part of the picture when it comes to helping the next generation live longer, healthier lives than us. Programmes like Empower, that help kids join the dots between growing, cooking and feeling good, are crucial.”
The Kids’Cam research was funded by the Health Research Council of NZ as part of the DIET research programme (13/724) led by Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu at the University of Auckland.