April 15, 2019

Majority of supermarket foods targeted to Canadian kids aren't healthy, UCalgary research finds

Study illustrates why marketing regulations are needed for child-targeted foods, says author Charlene Elliott
Charlene Elliott
Charlene Elliott's study illustrates why marketing regulations are needed for child-targeted foods Photo by Debby Herold

A new University of Calgary study of two made-in-Canada policy options to crack down on the marketing of foods to children shows the vast majority of supermarket products designed to entice kids would not pass the smell test.

Dr. Charlene Elliott, PhD, a professor in the Faculty of Arts Department of Communication, Media and Film who holds the Canada Research Chair in Food Marketing, Policy and Children’s Health, assessed 374 products against Health Canada’s proposals and a pair of international approaches. 

“Across all four models we looked at, almost 60 per cent of the products we purchased would not be permitted for advertising to children. That’s unsettling given the products were selected because they explicitly target children or have packaging claiming that the product is for kids,” says Elliott, who is also a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).

“When almost 60 per cent of products designed for children would not be permitted for marketing, there is a problem.”

In anticipation of The Child Protection Act, which would prohibit the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to kids, Health Canada has laid out two paths forward that will define what is permissible for marketing to children.

The policy options are based on nutrient content. Option 1 is stricter, permitting the marketing of products that are “low in” sugars, sodium and saturated fat (approximately five per cent of the daily value). Option 2 is less strict, and would permit the marketing of products that contain approximately 15 per cent of daily nutrient value. Put another way, one would allow for the promotion of only healthy foods, the other simply restricts the worst offenders.

Elliott purchased an assortment of foods from two leading food retailers in Calgary — a grab-bag of dry, refrigerated or frozen items with fun, child-friendly packaging, the word “kid” or “child” in the brand or product name, or products with characters licensed from children’s movies and television shows. The study purposefully excluded obvious junk foods like candy bars, chips and sugary sodas.

The chosen foods were tested against both of Health Canada’s policy options, as well as models put forward by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Office for Europe and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO).

The results were surprising.

Under the more stringent rules set out under Option 1, only 2.7 per cent of products would be permitted for advertising to kids in Canada.

Only seven per cent of products would be allowed under the PAHO approach, and 11.8 per cent of products would be permitted by WHO. Health Canada’s Option 2 was the most permissive model, with almost 30 per cent of the products allowed for marketing to kids.

Across all models, just six products were universally permitted for marketing. Elliott says the results illustrate the predominantly unhealthy nature of child-targeted foods and show why regulations are necessary.

“If we take the most strict policy approach, only one in 50 products would be permitted, compared to one in four products with the most lenient policy approach. This is an incredible variation given that we are dealing with the exact same products.”

The results have been published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. You can read the study authored by Elliott and PhD student Natalie Scime here.

Through its Healthy Eating Strategy announced in 2016, the federal government aims to improve food environments, promote child health and curb childhood obesity. Part of that strategy includes The Child Protection Act the Senate is expected to pass later this year.

The bill would regulate advertising of child-targeted foods on traditional and digital platforms; however, it is not known whether those restrictions will extend to packaging.

Dr. Mary L'Abbé, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto and a former director at the Bureau of Nutritional Sciences at Health Canada. She says Elliott’s study shows clearly why Canada needs to include packaging in its definition of marketing.

“Right now there is a gap,” says L'Abbé, who also heads the WHO’s Collaborating Centre for Nutrition Policy for Chronic Disease Prevention and works with the national Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition. “We can restrict advertising in media and on websites, but if it’s all over food packaging that children are constantly exposed to, that would be a huge loophole.”

Unhealthy diets have become a leading risk for death and disability in Canada and a multi-billion-dollar burden on health-care systems.

“Childhood obesity and unhealthy eating is a problem,” says Elliott, “and there is a strong evidence base that food habits are shaped by food marketing and that this impacts their health over the long term. But there’s an ethical component to this as well; namely, why are we promoting unhealthy foods to children in the first place?”

Charlene Elliot is a professor and member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine and is jointly appointed with the Faculty of Kinesiology.