Annalee Gray Brown | Protecting our children from marketing of unhealthy foods
Our children are our future. Indeed, they are our presents, little gifts that we want to take care of. But with national statistics indicating that one in three children are overweight or obese and, therefore, at increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and certain types of cancers, our children need our help in creating an environment that will support healthier eating habits, greater physical activity, and providing a greater possibility of living their best lives.
As it stands currently, our children’s environment (everything external to our children, including where they live, how they travel, what is available to eat, options for play and entertainment) can promote weight gain. Our culture has become one that facilitates excess energy intake (often via fast foods and sugary drinks) and a sedentary way of life (which means that the body uses up a minimum amount of energy on a daily basis). This can result in extra energy, which the body usually stores as fat. The body does need fat for some processes, but extra fat makes some processes inefficient and leaves the body susceptible to disease.
As we look closer at the role of diet, much of what we eat these days is processed and packaged to varying degrees. Recent evidence shows that a large share of the pre-packaged food and drinks available locally contain negative food characteristics. Namely, they are highly processed and contain added sugars, sodium, and/or saturated and trans fats exceeding recommended thresholds. There is overwhelming evidence showing that these negative food characteristics increase the risk of non-communicable disease. It is not enough to simply tell children to eat properly. We need to help them make the healthier choice, the easier choice, by creating an environment that facilitates them doing so.
Researchers have confirmed that food advertisements and marketing on the front of food labels contributes to positive attitudes, preferences, and consumption of products. This makes sense as this is the point of marketing. If you have a product that you believe in, or at least one that could be profitable, then the more people you tell about it, and the more you showcase how it could fit into someone’s dream life, then sales will increase. This is what marketers do. However, a survey of our advertisements indicates that many food marketers are not doing it in a responsible way.
Did you know that the ability to decipher the intent of marketing and, therefore, make an informed choice about the suitability of a product is lacking in younger children? Studies show that before age eight, most children are not able to comprehensively understand advertisements and may, therefore, not be able to recognise that a product may look desirable but may not be a good choice for them. The research also shows that the ability to monitor and control thoughts, emotions, and actions fully develops in adolescence. Therefore, in advertising to children (anyone under age 18 by Jamaican law), marketers should be required take into consideration age-specific developmental milestones so that younger children’s inability to properly control thoughts, emotions, and actions is not abused.
There is no issue with marketing, but responsible marketing is what is needed. Therefore, marketing of unhealthy foods directed to children through all communication channels including the food label, television,and in schools should be regulated. Our government should speedily enact and enforce food and beverage marketing guidelines, which could include the following:
• Define marketing to children to include all communication avenues through which children can be targeted.
• No direct marketing to children in schools (or an age-defined limit).
• Only products that meet specific category-based nutrition profile criteria to be allowed to bear health claims (e.g., 100% Vitamin C, ‘good for bones and teeth’).
• Food-industry companies to ensure that all employees involved in the marketing or sale of products are informed about the guidelines or face penalties from the Government.
Our school-nutrition policy should also include marketing-related aspects:
• Banned products should neither be sold, marketed, or provided to children within the school environment.
• Food and beverage donations or fundraising activities for schools should meet recommended nutrition guidelines.
• Product branding and incentives such as company logos, discounts, or promotions should not be included with donated products accessible by children (e.g. exercise books, apparel, equipment, posters, meals), even if donations are of a charitable nature.
It is often said that we make great laws and fail to enforce them well. However, at the speed at which our children’s collective health is worsening, laws surrounding the health of our children need to have teeth, incisors, even. A suitable government agency should have a regulatory role, and food-marketing adherence is to be monitored. Breaches should attract suitable penalties.
We need to be serious about reversing childhood obesity trends and securing the health of future generations. Now is the perfect time to reassess our food environment to support our health and especially now as our health status affects our vulnerability to COVID-19. All Jamaicans must look for opportunities to help our country to be the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business - Jamaica, an island in the Caribbean where the healthy choice is the easy choice.
Annalee Gray Brown is a nutritionist & research assistant at the Caribbean Institute for Health Research at The University of the West Indies, Kingston. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.