Almost 90% of food items aimed specifically at children have a poor nutritional content, yet most of these still make positive health claims, a major new study has shown.
Researchers carried out a detailed study of 367 products that were purchased from a large supermarket, which stocked 50,000 food and non-food items. Each food product had to meet very strict criteria.
“We included food products and packaging that were presented in such a way that children were the clear target audience. They included products that promoted fun and play, had a cartoon image on the front of the box or were linked to children’s films, TV programmes and merchandise,” explained lead researcher, Prof Charlene Elliott of the University of Calgary in Canada.
Each product was subjected to a 36-point analysis that included the nutritional content and how the packaging was designed to appeal to children and their parents. Confectionary, soft drinks and baked products were specifically excluded from the study.
The researchers found that only 11% of the items evaluated provided good nutritional value, with 89% being of poor nutritional quality (PNQ). Overall, almost 70% of the items derived a high proportion of their calories from sugar, 23% had high fat levels and 17% had high sodium (salt) levels.
Despite this, 62% of the products with poor PNQ made positive claims about their nutritional value on the front of the packaging. Some of these claims included that products were low in fat, a source of calcium, contained no artificial colourings or provided a number of essential nutrients.
Among the products high in sugar, 68% made some sort of nutritional claim on the package, such as a source of iron or whole grains. Cereals and fruit snacks were particularly likely to make nutritional claims and have high levels of sugar.
Of the products high in fat, 37% made some sort of nutritional claim on the packaging. For example, one pizza product claimed to be a ‘source of calcium’, while a product that mixed peanut butter with chocolate claimed to be a ‘source of six essential nutrients’.
Of the products high in sodium levels, 34% made some sort of nutritional claim. Crackers and pizza products were among the worst offenders.
The study noted that one in five products featured a cartoon image engaged in some sort of healthy physical activity on the front of the packaging, while one in four had such images on the side or back of the packaging. Activities included skateboarding and basketball.
“Children’s foods can now be found in virtually every section of the supermarket and are available for every eating experience. Parents may have questions about which packaged foods are good for their children. Yet certain nutritional claims may add to the confusion, as they can mislead people into thinking the whole product is nutritious,” Prof Elliott explained.
She said that the findings are cause for concern, especially given current rates of childhood obesity worldwide.
Up to 35% of children in Europe, Canada and the US are overweight or obese and this is linked to a range of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer. Overweight children can also suffer psychologically.
Prof Elliott believes that attention needs to be directed towards the nutritional claims made by products aimed at children and the images they use to sell products.
“If a parent sees a product that makes specific nutritional claims, they may assume that the whole product is nutritious and our study has shown that this is definitely not true in the vast majority of cases. Using cartoon characters engaged in sport can also create the illusion of a healthy product,” she added.
Details of these findings are published in the UK journal, Obesity Reviews.
Discussions on this topic are now closed.