A new law to restrict food advertising to children is making its way through Parliament.
Bill S-228 proposes to ban the marketing of food and beverage to children younger than 13.
“Kids are affected by what they are seeing and advertising affects what they are demanding of their parents to bring into the house,” said Hasan Hutchinson, director of the office of nutrition policy and promotion at Health Canada.
The Quebec approach will guide Health Canada’s decisions on what constitutes unhealthy foods, said Hutchinson during a food policy conference held in Calgary June 18-19.
The Quebec Consumer Protection Act has banned since 1980 the advertising of all goods and services targeted to children younger than 13. Quebec children have the nation’s highest consumption of fruit and vegetables and the lowest obesity rates among six to 11-year-olds in Canada.
The United Kingdom, Norway and Sweden have similar legislation.
Advertising to children should encourage eating healthy foods. Foods containing high amounts of sugar, salt and fat are unwanted.
“We do know exposure to food and beverage marketing changes kids’ attitudes toward nutrition. It changes their food preferences and it changes their eating behaviour,” said Kim Raine, head of the school of public health at the University of Alberta.
“Probably the only time during a kid’s day when they are not exposed to marketing is while they are asleep,” she said.
Canadian children watch about two hours of television a day and see three to seven ads for food and beverages per hour. Anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of the food ads are selling products high in energy, sugar, salt and fat. Two percent is about fruit and vegetables.
A third of Canadian children and adolescents will visit a fast-food restaurant on any day, where they may be enticed with toys or other marketing ploys.
The Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition was launched in 2016 with endorsements from 100 organizations and health professionals to advocate for change.
“Children are bombarded with ads about unhealthy foods, and marketing works,” said Ashley Hughes of the coalition.
The average grocery store stocks 350 to 400 foods directed to children. The packaging often present fun themes with colourful designs.
Many of the offerings are not good choices. The main problem is too much sugar, said Charlene Elliott, the University of Calgary’s chair of food marketing policy and marketing to children.
Elliott evaluates lists of foods for nutrition and marketing trends.
Processed-food purchases have doubled in the last 70 years and make up about 60 percent of food found in Canadian homes.
In 2005, 367 products were evaluated and 89 percent were of poor nutritional quality with high salt, sugar and fat. Probably 70 percent were high in sugar but her research has noted a slight trend toward better nutrition in kids’ food.
Food companies seem to be moving away from hyping unnatural products like glow in the dark yogurt, drink crystals that change colour or purple catsup.
“Reframing food as entertainment is less common today than in previous data sets, although 15 percent still have a direct claim of the fun in the food,” she said.
Some foods only exist to promote a cartoon or movie hero but plainer package designs are starting to appear.
“The problem with such character licensing goes beyond what we eat and the ethical issue of the commercialization of childhood,” she said.