food marketing

A recent study employed the use of a new method in which children wore cameras to document their everyday exposure to food marketing.

The past thirty years have seen a concerning global rise in childhood obesity, in part due to the widespread prevalence of advertising for unhealthy foods and beverages. Obesity during childhood and adolescence increases one’s risk for many serious health conditions later in life. Researchers blame the worldwide increase in childhood obesity on the pervasive marketing of energy-dense nutrient-poor foods and beverages which constantly promote the purchase and consumption of foods that do not meet nutritional guidelines.

To combat this, the World Health Organization (WHO) Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) recommends a reduction of children’s exposure and access to unhealthy foods. Unfortunately, little is known about their actual daily exposure to food marketing, as previous research has depended on self-report, reporting by parents, or third-party observation of children’s environments. Additionally, prior research has focused either on single settings (ie. outdoors) and/or media (television). Fortunately, a study recently published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found an innovative way to see the world of food marketing from a kid’s perspective.

Conducted in New Zealand, the Kids’Cam study consisted of 168 participants averaging 12years old. For four consecutive days, each child wore a camera that captured images automatically every seven seconds. Researchers then manually labelled the images as either belonging to recommended marketing to children (core) or not recommended marketing to children (non-core) according to the setting, marketing medium, and product category.

Upon data compilation and analysis, the results showed that children in this study were exposed to non-core food marketing (food not recommended to be marketed to children) a whopping 27.3 times a day on average across all settings. It is important to keep in mind that this number actually excludes images captured in convenience stores and supermarkets, as the study deemed the marketing examples there too numerous to count. As it stands, this was more than twice their average exposure to core food marketing —at only a mere 12.3 times per day.

Most non-core food marketing exposures, mainly in the form of packaging and signs, occurred in public spaces, at school, and – even more concerning, at home. Consistent with previous research, sugary drinks, fast food, candy, and snack foods were the most popular non-core foods marketed. It should be noted that although televisions, smartphones, tablets, and computers often appeared in the Kids’Cam images, the researchers stress that screen-based marketing was likely under-reported in the study as pictures on the screens were often not clear enough to meet the classification criteria in the images. This means that children’s potential exposure to non-core food marketing could be even higher!

While this study—the first of its kind—provides some of the most reliable data yet on the topic, there is one limitation to keep in mind: the images do not determine if a child actually sees the food marketing, as the child could be looking elsewhere. However, this limitation is somewhat countered by the vast extent of food marketing in children’s environments.

Overall, this research confirms that our hazardous food marketing environment is making our children sick. The researchers suggest that implementing plain packaging for certain foods and sugary beverages may be a viable intervention, particularly given children’s vulnerability to food marketing in this form. Needless to say, action must be taken—by both the government and food marketing industry—to ensure that our children live long and healthy lives.

Written by Rebecca Yu

Reference: Signal, L. N., Stanley, J., Smith, M., Barr, M. B., Chambers, T. J., Zhou, J., … & Pearson, A. L. (2017). Children’s everyday exposure to food marketing: an objective analysis using wearable cameras. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14(1), 137.

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