I have a summer full of travel (mostly work but also family time and pleasure) and will be writing new posts infrequently. Meantime, I'll be reposting a version of some of the most popular posts I’ve written over the past years so that new readers have a chance to catch up. Wishing you a happy and healthy summer!
Most parents are aware of the marketing efforts directed at their kids through advertising. Besides direct advertising on television and in internet games, packaging of food in a way that appeals specifically to kids is another way food is marketed to our kids. All of these tactics affect our kids’ choices (at least their nagging choices).
How does packaged food target kids?
Manufacturers introduce “fun” in their packaging. Specific colors, iconography (including cartoons), graphics, language and shapes (animal and cars) allure the kids, beckoning them to take a look. Packages offer free games, tie-ins with popular kids’ programs and films, and “lets have fun” messaging. Kids know immediately that this is a food playfully designed for a kid.
Professor Charlene Elliott from the University of Calgary, Canada, studied 367 products targeted specifically at kids to assess their nutritional value. The results appeared in the journal Obesity Reviews.
Before we get to the findings, a few words about the method of this study:
• The 367 products were selected from a Canadian supermarket, and included only “regular” foods within the dry goods, dairy, produce and frozen food categories. The study excluded typical “junk food”—confectionary, soft drinks, cakes, potato chips etc., as these are expected to be of poor nutritional value, and don’t need testing.
• Assessment of nutritional value was done using the criteria outlined by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI): Healthy food should not derive more than 35 percent of its calories from fat (excluding nuts and seed and nut butters), should have no more than 35 percent added sugar by weight, and upper limits for sodium levels are defined depending on the food category.
Regarding the nutritional value of fun foods, the study found:
• 89 percent of the kids’ products studied were classified as having poor nutritional quality” (PNQ)
• Within the dry goods kids foods (including granola bars, cereal bars, pasta, soups), high sugar levels were the main culprit.
• Within the refrigerated and frozen foods (packaged lunches, pizzas), many products had high fat or sodium.
• Less than 1 percent of the foods specifically targeted at children in a Canadian supermarket are fruits and vegetables; the only kids’ foods in the produce section were small apples and baby carrots.
Health claims abound
Fun foods don’t portray just happy drawings and cartoons. The majority of these foods (62.7 percent) had nutrition claims on the box. Examples range from the Smart Spot™ (a logo with a check mark in the middle, designed by PepsiCo, and displayed on those products from this company supposedly meeting nutritional standards), to phrases like “low fat,” “good source of calcium,” “trans-fat free,” etc.
The interesting finding was that among the 326 fun foods that were of poor nutritional quality, 202 (62 percent) had nutritional claims.
So while the nutritional claim of “low fat,” “no trans-fat” or “good source of iron” might lead one to think the whole product is nutritious, that isn’t necessarily the case—the product may be full of sugar, non trans-fat or sodium.
Another hidden message of health on products marketed to kids is the healthful physical activities the cartoon images are engaged in—many of the cartoons are depicted playing some kind of sport.
The strange world of food designed for kids
“Fun food products are no longer contained within the cereal aisle; they pervade the entire supermarket and are available for every eating experience (breakfasts, snacks, lunches, dinners). Fun food marketing suggests that children should be served 'special' foods made uniquely for them, that family meals should be reconfigured into foods for children and foods for adults, and that children's fare should be more interactive, more colourful, increasingly removed from the 'natural'.
All of these suggestions can create a problematic relationship between food and children, working to create a space in which children become accustomed to the 'unnaturalness' of food and learn to appreciate the value of food as fun, sport or distraction (instead of focusing on nutrition). As I discuss elsewhere, in consistently emphasizing a food's play factor, artificiality and general distance from 'regular' foods, fun food marketing can work to create a particularly unnatural relationship with food in children.
Food becomes framed as entertainment, and this entertainment is both premised on and emphasizes the artificiality of what is being consumed. (Remarkably, it is only in the world of children's food that artificiality is actually framed as a selling feature.)”