Food and advertising industry failing to protect children from junk food marketing

Cancer Council NSW
Young woman and two girls smiling.

Food companies bombard children with marketing for unhealthy food; and it influences what food they like, pester for, and eat. But how do we decide what is an ‘unhealthy food’?

Our study looked at outdoor food advertisements and compared six systems that could be used to define ‘unhealthy food’. We found Australia already has an easy to use system and it outperforms the others most of the time.

Recommendations to address high childhood obesity rates include regulation on unhealthy food marketing to children. Reducing children’s exposure to advertising of unhealthy food and drinks is a focus area in the recently developed National Preventive Health and National Obesity Strategies.

However, the food industry uses many tactics to prevent the government stepping in to regulate. One tactic is to develop voluntary codes as an alternative to government regulation; the Outdoor Media Association’s Health and Wellbeing policy which uses the Health Star Rating to define food that cannot be advertised outside schools is an example. Another industry tactic is to cast doubt by suggesting there is a lack of public health agreement on a definition of ‘unhealthy food’.

Our study used a sample of advertisements from Sydney buses and at train stations. We compared nutrition criteria designed by Australia governments – the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) guide – with some international and Australian systems.

The COAG guide is based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines and lists seven categories of food that cannot be advertised.

The World Health Organization Western Pacific and European regions’ systems list some categories of food that cannot be advertised, for example, confectionery; but for some food detailed nutrition information is needed to determine the healthiness of a food.

The NOVA classification system ranks how processed foods are; all foods classified as ‘ultra-processed’ were considered ‘unhealthy’ for this study.

Two versions of the Health Star Rating food labelling system – the one in place at the time of the study and the version approved in 2020 after a five-year review – were also used as a comparison. The Health Star Rating system assigns a health rating/star to food to help people find healthier food in supermarkets.

We found the COAG guide was able to classify more products than the other models because nutrition information was not required, and it was easy to categorize food. The proportion of food classified as ‘healthy’ (most strict) was lowest for NOVA (10%), similar for COAG and the World Health Organisation models (16%-17%) and highest for Health Star Rating systems (26%-28%). The Outdoor Media Association uses the most lenient system we studied — the Health Star Rating.

Our study used real advertisements to understand difficulties that may be encountered when used for regulation. We found that 83% of the outdoor food advertisements were for unhealthy food and drinks.

“These results show children are being bombarded by advertising on public transport and prove that the current systems, put in place by industry, just aren’t working,” said Clare Hughes, a co-author on the study and Nutrition Unit Manager at Cancer Council NSW.

The study found the COAG guide was simple and easy to use and aligned with Australian dietary advice. “Food marketing regulation needs a way to identify food that should not be advertised to children. Based on this study, we are confident that the independently developed COAG guide works well”, Ms Hughes said, “government regulation using this guide must be part of our new national preventive health and obesity strategies”.

Watson WL, Khor PY, Hughes C. Defining unhealthy food for regulating marketing to children-What are Australia’s options? Nutrition & Dietetics. 2021

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