‘It’s not right’: Babies and toddlers targeted by food marketing
Innocent toddler eyes are the targets of smart marketing decisions. Photo: Getty
Australian children are subjected to savvy marketing in supermarkets before they can even read, new research has found.
Research by Monash and Deakin universities’ experts published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health found tots and parents are subjected by ‘aggressive’ marketing on food packaging in the baby and toddler aisle at supermarkets.
After analysing hundreds of baby and toddler food packages from Australia’s two biggest supermarkets, they found nine out of 10 featured promotional techniques that targeted children, lead author and Monash University research fellow Alex Chung told TND .
These included packages being decorated with graphics, bright colours, cartoons, and branded or licensed characters such as Peppa Pig and Bluey.
“In this age group of food that we’re talking about, the children are very young, and they’re impressionable,” Chung said.
“And it’s not right that the food industry is targeting these children with marketing when the food industry’s motives are, really, to sell food and … make profits.”
“Food marketing can … influence what children want to eat, and what children ask their parents to buy for them. And children’s dietary behaviours are established from a really young age.”
Misleading food health claims
Parents make the final purchasing decision, and may be more able to resist the draw of a cute cartoon, but researchers found food packaging is targeting their weak spot: Concerns for their children’s health.
All the baby and toddler food products analysed featured one or more appeals to health or nutrition – many of which were misleading.
These included images of healthy ingredients, promotion of features such as iron, fibre or organic origins, and claims highlighting the absence of unhealthy ingredients such as sugar, salt, additives, and preservatives.
But researchers said these claims are used despite other research finding baby and toddler foods often fail to meet nutritional recommendations, and commonly contain added sugar in the form of cane sugar, fruit purees, and fruit concentrates.
Accurate health information can be found on the ingredient list and nutrition information panel on the back, bottom or sides of food packaging, but Chung said parents often don’t look past the positive claims on the front.
And while some items’ packaging, such as squeeze pouches and pureed food claimed to benefit child development by encouraging self-feeding, experts have expressed concerns that these products could lead to feeding difficulties and encourage a preference for sweet foods.
Popular cartoons are used to spruik food to children. Photo: TND/ABC/Getty
“In this young age, children ideally would be learning how to eat with a spoon and chew food that has lumpy textures,” Chung said.
“But if they’re relying on squeeze pouches, which are really heavily promoted as an option for parents, then children could be missing out on opportunities to develop eating behaviours.”
Calls for government action
Chung said the findings are evidence that the government needs to step in regarding the marketing of baby and toddler food, as the industry is not regulating itself properly.
“The ideal packaging would have nothing that specifically targets children, and it would include information that is honest, and not misleading,” she said.
“We do have a problem in Australia. For example, one in four Australian children experience [being] overweight and obesity … around one-third of their total dietary intake comes from unhealthy food.”
“Across the board, we could have better standards for how foods for children are promoted, and…the main objective of any of these standards is to ensure that children’s health is put first; children’s health is the priority.”