Claims such as ‘Good source of calcium and protein' and sports star endorsements on food packaging do influence children's choices. This is the finding of a new study published in Pediatric Obesity.
The study, undertaken by the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer (CBRC) at Cancer Council Victoria, included 1,300 children in Melbourne aged around 11 years old. Participants were shown a selection of randomly assigned unhealthy food products and a comparable group of healthier alternatives and asked to pick their favourite. The unhealthy food packaging included products with either nutrient content claims – like ‘high in calcium', sports celebrity endorsements, premium offers such as free movie tickets, or no promotion at all.
Overall the results showed that nutrition content claims increased perceptions of the unhealthy food's nutritional value and increased the likelihood of children choosing that product over a healthier one without such claims by 80%.
The study showed that boys were also influenced by celebrity endorsements from male athletes. The likelihood of boys choosing an unhealthy food was 65% higher when it featured a sports celebrity endorsement. Premium offers had less impact on participants' choices, which may be due to this age group being less trusting of the notion of free giveaways.
"The results from this study show that featuring nutrient content claims and sports celebrity endorsements on unhealthy food products can tip children's food preferences towards less nutritious products," said Dr Helen Dixon, Senior Research Fellow for Obesity Prevention at the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer at Cancer Council Victoria.
"These findings add to the evidence base on the effect of common food packaging promotions on young people's food choices."
According to Jane Martin from the Obesity Policy Coalition, government regulation is needed to place tougher restrictions on junk-food marketing to children.
"The majority of child-oriented marketing techniques appear on packaging of foods that are high in kilojoules and low in nutritional value," said Ms Martin.
"Nutrient content claims typically highlight selected positive nutritional characteristics of a product without including information on its unhealthy ingredients, so they can give the impression the food is healthier than it, in fact, is.
"Stricter measures need to be introduced to limit food manufacturers' use of nutrient content claims to ensure consumers aren't confused about the healthiness of a product."
The Obesity Policy Coalition also urges sports celebrities to think twice before aligning themselves with unhealthy food products and brands.
"Celebrities, particularly sports celebrities who have a vested interest in health and fitness, need to think about the contribution they're making to childhood obesity in Australia by endorsing unhealthy food products, and decide whether or not that's something they want to be involved with. A quick buck in this instance can have a hugely detrimental effect on Aussie kids' health."
Currently in Australia, approximately 25% of children, and more than 60% of adults are overweight or obese. Research published in 2010 estimated the direct costs of overweight and obesity to be $21 billion.
The Obesity Policy Coalition is a group of leading public health agencies who are concerned about the escalating levels of overweight and obesity, particularly in children.
The Obesity Policy Coalition partners include Diabetes Australia – Vic, Cancer Council Victoria, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University.