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Parents duped by sports star endorsement & positive nutrition claims on junk food

Friday 11 February, 2011

Endorsements by well-known sports personalities and selective nutrition claims on food packaging influence parents to buy energy-dense nutrient-poor (EDNP) food for their children, according to a Cancer Council Victoria study published today.

The online study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, asked parents to choose between an unhealthy food product and a comparable but healthier alternative, based on the packaging. Parents were also given the option of reading the nutrition information panel (NIP) yet less than half (44%) chose to do so.

When presented with the two options, those who didn't read the NIP were almost two and a half times as likely to choose the unhealthy product if it was endorsed by a sports celebrity, and almost twice as likely to do so if there was a prominent nutrient claim, i.e. source of fibre, on the front of pack.

Jane Martin, senior policy adviser for the Obesity Policy Coalition said the study strengthened the case for a food labelling system that would help parents make informed and healthier food choices for their children at a glance.

"There is strong evidence that marketing influences children's food choices but until now there has been little published data on the effect marketing child-orientated food to parents has on their perception and purchases. This study shows that endorsement by a sports star and selective nutrient claims are powerful promotional devices that can potentially mislead parents about the nutritional benefits of products."

Ms Martin said food manufacturers were wary of community concern regarding marketing junk food directly to children, and were finding ways to reach parents instead.

"When buying food for their children, parents are influenced by their perception of how healthy a product is. What we've shown is that this is affected by promotions highlighting the positive elements of the food and recommendations by athletes," said lead author of the study, Dr Helen Dixon of Cancer Council Victoria's Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer.

Ms Martin said it was unrealistic to expect parents to always read and compare the nutrition information panel, which is why a simpler system of traffic light labels, as recommended by the recent food labelling review, was such a good idea.

"If Australia is serious about combating our childhood obesity epidemic, there needs to be greater regulation of nutrient claims made by food manufacturers. The Obesity Policy Coalition strongly supports the food labelling review's recommendation that companies should not be able to use such claims on unhealthy products.

"The study revealed that without clear nutrition information, parents are also significantly more likely to be swayed by sports star endorsement. We would like to see this powerful promotional technique used on unhealthy foods stopped."

About the study

The study's objective was to assess parents' responses to common, potentially misleading marketing strategies for energy-dense nutrient-poor (ENDP) child-orientated food.

A total of 1551 parents of children aged 5-12 years who identified themselves as the main grocery buyer took part in the web-based study. Parents were randomly exposed to one ENDP food pack and one comparable healthier food pack, and were given the option to read the nutrition information panel (NIP) on each product. They were then asked to choose and rate their preferred product to purchase.

Less than half of parents (44%) read the NIP on either product before making their purchasing choice. Those parents who didn't read the NIP were almost twice as likely to choose an EDNP product if it featured a nutrient claim (OR= 1.83, p<0.001) and almost two and a half times (OR=2.37, p<0.001) more likely to choose an EDNP product endorsed by a sports celebrity.

About the Obesity Policy Coalition

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.

The Obesity Policy Coalition supports such policies as:

  • Restrictions on junk food marketing
  • Improved labelling on packaged food, including traffic light labelling
  • Tax and pricing strategies to support healthy eating.