Babies and toddlers can’t read or buy anything yet, but new research reveals that they are being targeted with aggressive marketing in the baby and toddler aisle at the supermarket.
The research, published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, has prompted health experts to call for regulation of on-pack labelling and promotional techniques used on baby and toddler food.
Authors analysed 230 product packs found in two major supermarkets to uncover the marketing techniques used by manufacturers of products for children aged from just six months to three years. They found that 9 in 10 food packages displayed techniques specifically designed to target young children.
55 percent of all the products reviewed included child appealing visuals such as bright colours and graphics. More than a third of all packages included images of a baby or child on the front of the package, and one in six included recognisable branded characters.
Lead author and VicHealth Postdoctoral Researcher, Dr Alexandra Chung from Monash University, says the food industry deliberately uses child-targeted marketing techniques alongside deceptive messaging aimed at parents.
‘Food marketers are deliberately using child-appealing images to attract the attention of very young children and make their product seem fun and desirable. Unfortunately, many of these products are highly processed and are not recommended by health and nutrition experts.
‘Our research also found that parents are being bombarded with on-pack messaging. 96 percent of products used an image of a healthy food on the front of the pack – even though this might only make-up a small proportion of the product,’ said Dr Chung.
’58 percent of products made claims about nutritional content, while 52 percent of product packs said the product was organic and 51 percent used claims relating to the product being natural.
‘Toddlers and babies are being marketed to by the baby food industry, and when the children reach for these products parents feel reassured from bogus health claims that it’s a good choice to go in their shopping trolley. The reality is that most of these commercially produced products contain too much sugar and are not nutritionally adequate.’
Dr Chung says the study also raises concerns about the sheer amount of snack and sugary foods targeted at toddlers in supermarkets.
’50 percent of the toddler foods found in these major supermarkets were snack foods and 20 percent would be classified as confectionary based on the sugar content. These included things like fruit bars and yoghurt buttons.
’85 percent of all baby and toddler products highlighted their convenient packaging – like squeezable pouches, single servings or individually wrapped. There is a lot of marketing messaging around convenient products that can be offered on-the-go, and this distracts from the importance of designated mealtimes consumed at the dinner table with the family,’ said Dr Chung.
Professor Kathryn Backholer, a Vice President for the Public Health Association of Australia and a co-author on the study, says that the research points to the need for tighter regulation to protect our youngest children’s diets from industry influence.
‘This research shows we can’t rely on big food companies spruiking products to babies and toddlers to do the right thing. Whilst there are some labelling regulations for baby and toddler foods in Australia, currently these do not go far enough to protect children’s diets,’ she said.
‘Regulation is needed to ensure that these foods are nutritionally adequate and do not mislead consumers with deceptive labelling or marketing.
‘It’s not fair to leave it up to parents to navigate sneaky marketing and check ingredient lists and nutrition panels for accurate information or to have to battle pester power. To shield our youngest children’s diets from commercial interests and promote good eating habits, government needs to step in and stop relying on industry self-regulation.’