WHO releases policy recommendations to protect children from harmful effects of food marketing

Food marketing involves the use of numerous persuasive techniques to influence children's food attitudes, preferences & consumption  

By Susan Chacko
Published: Tuesday 04 July 2023
Food marketing was prevalent in places where children gather & content they consume. Photo: iStock

The World Health Organization (WHO) released July 3, 2023 new guidelines on shaping policies to protect children from the harmful impacts of food marketing that promote unhealthy dietary choices.

The guideline recommends implementation of comprehensive mandatory policies to protect children of all ages from the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages that are high in saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, free sugars and / or salt (HFSS).

The most frequently marketed food categories were fast food, sugar-sweetened beverages, chocolate and confectionery, salty and savoury snacks, sweet bakery items and snacks, breakfast cereals and desserts, according to WHO. 

Evidence showed that food marketing mainly promoted HFSS foods, the United Nations health agency noted. Food marketing was prevalent in places such as schools and sports clubs where children gather; during children's television viewing times; digital spaces popular among young people and in magazines targeting children and adolescents, it observed.

The guidelines build on the 2010 WHO 'Set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children' and take into consideration more recent evidence specific to children and to the context of food marketing.

Since then, the evidence on the harmful impact of food marketing has grown. However, there has been limited national action and children continue to be exposed to marketing for HFSS foods, WHO flagged. 

New marketing media have also evolved, most notably digital marketing, which poses a growing concern, said the global health body.

Policies should be formulated keeping in mind the best interest of children and also the country context, the WHO experts suggested. This includes the country’s nutritional situation, cultural context, locally available foods, dietary customs, available resources and capacities, existing governance structures and mechanisms among others, they added.

To prepare the guideline, a scoping review of existing evidence of the impact of food

marketing on children and resultant dietary pattern was prepared by Dr Emma Boyland, University of Liverpool. A total of 179 studies published from 2009 onwards were taken into consideration and it was found that “marketing of HFSS foods remains pervasive and persuasive across the globe”.

After going through the evidence, WHO recommended mandatory regulation of marketing of HFSS foods and non-alcoholic beverages, having previously made more allowances for a range of policy approaches. 

Another change is the guideline’s use of the definition of a child from the Convention on the Rights of the Child to be unequivocal that policies should protect all children.

The guideline called for countries to use a nutrient profile model and adopt policies comprehensive enough to minimise intra- and inter-medium migration to avoid restrictions on marketing in regulated channels or settings.

Dr Francesco Branca, Director, Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, WHO said:

Aggressive and pervasive marketing of foods and beverages high in fats, sugars, and salt to children is responsible for unhealthy dietary choices. Calls to responsible marketing practices have not had a meaningful impact.

Therefore, governments should establish strong and comprehensive regulations, he said.

Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of global public health risk contributing to undernutrition, micronutrient-related malnutrition, overweight, obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (NCD).

In 2017, to understand the linkages between food and NCDs, Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) conducted  the Know your diet — school children survey. This online diet survey was done to understand what school children in India were eating. 

The survey, meant for children of 9–17 years of age, also provided an instant diet report to each respondent. Over 13,000 children responded from various states of India.

Most school children were not eating a balanced diet, with about 66 per cent of children having a low frequency of intake of cereals and millets, the survey revealed. Around 45 per cent children had a low frequency of intake of vegetables, it showed. 

The survey found that packaged food was more popular among children than non-packaged food and around 53 per cent children consumed packaged food or beverages at least once a day.

In March 2023, WHO published a set of nutritional criteria which aimed to protect children from marketing that promoted unhealthy food and non-alcoholic beverages. The WHO Europe nutrient profile model helped in the classification of food products to determine whether they are healthy enough to be advertised to children.

The American Heart Association in April 2019 said it "sees no ethical, political, scientific, or social justification for marketing and advertising low nutrient, high-calorie foods to children and supports efforts to diminish this practice".

The journal The Lancet carried a series titled Commercial determinants of health in March 2023. It said commercial actors, on one hand, contribute positively to health and society and provide essential products and services. 

However, a substantial group of commercial actors are escalating avoidable levels of ill health, planetary damage and inequity — the commercial determinants of health.

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