Children are frequently exposed to marketing on food packaging. This problem is exacerbated by the overwhelming consensus in the literature describing the poor nutritional quality of products that are marketed in a child-appealing manner, regardless of the health assessment method (or nutrient profile model) used for evaluation.
Evidence has shown that unhealthy food marketing impacts children’s taste preferences and consumption behaviors. As a result, children’s diet quality suffers, contributing to the growing global burden of childhood overweight, obesity, diabetes, and diet-related chronic disease.
Evidence from Canada has shown that children’s overall diet quality is poor, partly due to inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption paired with high intakes of highly processed, nutrient-poor foods. Therefore, the marketing of unhealthy foods to children has been identified as an urgent public health concern in Canada and globally.
A new study evaluated the presence, type, and power of child-appealing marketing, compared the nutritional quality of child-appealing vs. non-child-appealing Canadian packaged foods, and examined the relationship between nutrient composition and marketing power.
Child-relevant packaged foods (n = 5,850) were sampled from the Food Label Information Program 2017 database. Briefly, FLIP 2017 contains package information for over 17,000 branded packaged food and beverage products from three top Canadian food retailers. Relevant to the present study, FLIP 2017 includes all data from a product’s Nutrition Facts table (NFt) and ingredients list, as well as photos of all sides of the product packaging collected in-store.
Scientists then developed a CAP coding tool to measure child-appealing marketing based on the marketing techniques displayed on food packaging. Briefly, the CAP tool identifies a series of core and broad marketing techniques, describing the marketing techniques coded by the CAP tool.
To ensure consistency and reliability in coding, scientists independently coded a random 5% of the sample, serving as a training phase before the rest of the data was coded. Inter-rater reliability checks found 93.2% raw agreement in coding whether products were child appealing.
Where there were consistent discrepancies or uncertainties around the coding of specific marketing techniques, researchers reached a consensus on how to code such products, and minor modifications and/or clarifications to the CAP tool were made to facilitate the consistent coding for the remainder the sample.
13% of the products displayed child-appealing marketing; the techniques and power of the marketing varied—more products with child-appealing packaging than non-child-appealing packaging exceeded Health Canada’s thresholds. Products with child-appealing packaging were higher in total and free sugars but lower in all other nutrients. There was weak overall correlation between marketing power and nutrient levels—results varied by nutrient and food category.
Unhealthy products with powerful child-appealing marketing displayed on the packages are prevalent in the food supply. Implementing marketing restrictions that protect children should be a priority.
Scientists noted, “Theis study presents an exciting step forward regarding child-appealing food and beverage marketing assessment methodologies as it utilizes the newly developed and validated CAP tool. As such, this is the first study (to our knowledge) to measure the power of food marketing empirically.”
“Overall, this study provides a comprehensive assessment and important baseline (i.e., preregulation) of the nutritional quality and composition of a large sample of child-appealing packaged products. Moreover, this study assessed products’ nutritional composition in terms of not only ‘negative’ nutrients but also ‘positive’ nutrients, which allowed for the examination of products with child-appealing packaging potentially beneficial contributions to the diet, which is not typically the focus of studies in this field.”
- Mulligan C, Vergeer L, Kent MP, L’Abbe´MR (2023) Child-appealing packaged food and beverage products in Canada–Prevalence, power, and nutritional quality. PLoS ONE 18(5): e0284350. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0284350