The World Health Organization (WHO) released earlier this week a new policy guideline to protect children from the harmful effects of food marketing.
The guideline recommends that countries implement comprehensive mandatory policies to protect children of all ages from the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages high in saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, free sugars and/or salt.
More than 10 years after Member States endorsed WHO recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, children continue to be exposed to powerful marketing of rich foods and non-alcoholic beverages in saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, free sugars and/or salt, the consumption of which is associated with negative health effects, observes the UN agency in a press release.
Public health threat
The updated recommendation is based on findings from reviews of recent evidence, including how exposure and the power of food marketing affects children’s health, eating behaviors and food-related attitudes and beliefs .
In short, food marketing remains a threat to public health and continues to negatively affect children’s food choices, expected choices and food intake, WHO believes. It also negatively influences the development of children’s food consumption norms.
The recommendation is also based on a systematic review of evidence on policies to restrict food marketing, including contextual factors.
Limit the power of persuasion
Policies aimed at restricting food marketing are more effective if they:
– are mandatory
– protect children of all ages
– use a government-led nutrient profile model to classify foods that are prohibited from marketing
– and are comprehensive enough to minimize the risk of marketing migrating to other age groups, other spaces within the same medium, or to other media, including digital spaces.
– Restricting the persuasive power of food marketing involves limiting the use of cartoons or techniques that appeal to children, such as including toys with products, advertising with songs, and celebrity endorsements.
In light of this evidence, the WHO now recommends mandatory regulation of the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages high in saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, free sugars and/or salt, after previously giving more leeway to a range of policy approaches. Another change is the directive’s use of the Convention on the Rights of the Child’s definition of a child, to be unequivocal that policies must protect all children.
“Aggressive and pervasive marketing of foods and beverages high in fats, sugars and salt to children is responsible for unhealthy food choices,” says Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at WHO. “Calls for responsible marketing practices have not had a significant impact. Governments should establish strong and comprehensive regulations.”
Policy decisions based on these guidelines should be adapted to the local contexts of WHO regions and Member States. Adopting the recommendation and adapting it to national contexts requires local consultations, with mechanisms in place to protect public health policy-making from undue influence from real, perceived or potential conflicts of interest, says WHO.
Policies to protect children from the harmful effects of food marketing are best implemented as part of a comprehensive policy approach to create conducive and supportive food environments, the UN agency adds.