A new study calls for marketing restrictions in Canada as food and drink packaging aimed at children is found to be high in sugar and low in nutrients.
In the research study, scientists analysed the relationship between the nutritional quality and packaging power of Canadian food and beverage products aimed at children. The study, released on the 3rd May 2023, was published in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed journal community that strives to advance science by democratising access to rigorous research.
With an exclusive focus on the Canadian market, researchers from the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the country’s University of Toronto and the School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa examined the connection between powerful marketing and the nutritional quality of packaged food and drink among children.
While the prevalence and power of child-appealing marketing on food products are strong, the nutritional quality of these items is weak, the researchers found.
A focus on child-appealing packaging
“Our goal with this area of research has always been to try and provide robust evidence that will support the implementation of marketing restrictions in Canada,” lead researcher Dr Christine Mulligan, Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, told IFIS Publishing.
“I’ve always been specifically interested in the marketing that occurs on product packaging since this is a marketing medium that is more often than not ignored by marketing policies or regulatory frameworks,” Mulligan adds.
The study saw scientists examine 5,850 food packaging samples from the Food Label Information Program 2017 database. The study’s scientists analysed the presence and intensity of a number of techniques displayed on the packaging of child-appealing marketing campaigns for food and drinks.
Researchers used tests to compare the proportion of products that surpassed Health Canada’s current nutrient limits for advertising with child and non-child-appealing product packaging. Health Canada is the Government of Canada’s department responsible for national health policy. In total, 746 (13%) of the product samples assessed were classified as appealing to children via their marketing.
Hallmarks of powerful child-centric marketing
“What we see most often is that food companies are using powerful marketing techniques like cartoon characters or characters from children’s media, bright colours or fun designs, games, cross-promotions and giveaways to target their products to children,” shares Mulligan.
The study’s finding that labels on food and drink products in Canada indicate a negative relationship between the marketing appeal and the nutritional value of these items raises questions about the impact powerful marketing techniques may have on children.
Impact of marketing on children
The researchers’ core finding was that food and drink products with greater marketing appeal often contain higher sugar levels and lower nutritional content. In detailing which nutrients were lacking in the products with powerful marketing, the researchers said this referred to “all other nutrients” rather than one specific nutrient.
The recent study is not isolated in its findings of this relationship. “There is a large body of literature indicating that food marketing is influencing children’s food preferences, driving them towards less healthy food products,” highlights Mulligan.
The law on child-appealing marketing
Industry insiders in Canada are calling for restrictions on advertising exposure to children to advocate and support health and nutrition. If regulations are implemented, it sends the message that powerful marketing techniques will not be an acceptable way to promote food and drinks to children with low nutritional value.
In 2016, regulators in Canada proposed the Child Health Protection Act. If introduced, the Act would have mandated companies’ restriction to market foods with poor nutritional value to children under 13 years old. “However, this bill was never passed, which is unfortunate given emerging evidence which indicates that mandatory restrictions are effective methods to reduce children’s exposure to marketing for foods high in nutrients of public health concern,” the study notes.
There is currently a Private Member’s Bill (Bill C-252), which is undergoing a parliamentary review. If successfully implemented, it would mandate the restriction of food and beverage marketing directed at children, says Mulligan. Health Canada has also recently released a proposed marketing policy, which is currently under public consultation. It sets out recommendations for advertising and marketing food that lacks nutrition to children. However, the policy is not yet mandatory and therefore remains guidance.
The study’s researchers detail that if the packaging is included in the regulations’ scope, they can potentially restrict children’s exposure to the least healthy packaged foods and products with the most powerful marketing. A move that the researchers say “should absolutely be implemented”.
How the food and drink industry can act
A significant takeaway of the study is that unhealthy products that feature powerful child-appealing marketing on their packaging are prevalent in the food and beverage industry. Throughout the supply chain, products marketed to children are low in nutrients, indicating the frequent exposure to these unhealthy products that children experience.
“Implementing marketing restrictions that protect children should be a priority,” the researchers conclude.
Mulligan C, Vergeer L, Kent MP, L’Abbé MR (2023) Child-appealing packaged food and beverage products in Canada–Prevalence, power, and nutritional quality. PLoS ONE 18(5): e0284350. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0284350
Source: Interview with lead study researcher Dr Christine Mulligan, Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto.
Researching packaging characteristics in FSTA
Articles reporting the use of packaging characteristics to market products to specific population groups are core to FSTA, and these topics are selected and indexed in FSTA from the >1500 serial sources currently being monitored by the IFIS science team.
This article focusing on the consequences of packaging power on nutritional quality of the products is represented in FSTA by a focused subset of documents from 89 quality-checked sources.
The numbers of research articles and reviews of the impact of packaging design on consumer preference and purchasing behaviour, and the nutritional quality of the products have shown a recent marked increase in FSTA.
Overall, FSTA includes 228 articles, but shows a marked increase after 2017, with 141 articles from 51 sources, and spiking in 2020 with 48 papers from 24 sources, illustrating the rising need to understand the consequences of marketing approaches to children. From 2019 onwards, the research is synthesised into 4-6 reviews per year indexed in FSTA.