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Sugary food brands using unsavoury marketing tactics to entice kids

More than three quarters (78%) of products with ‘child-appealing’ packaging are unhealthy, according to research published by the youth activist movement Bite Back.

The analysis of 262 products from the UK’s 10 largest food and drink companies also showed that 67% featuring a character on pack were unhealthy, as were 78% of unusually shaped and/or flavoured products.

Unhealthy foods were defined as those that are high in fat, sugar or salt and/or meet the criteria for a red front-of-pack label. 

For seven of the 10 businesses assessed – Ferrero, Kellogg’s, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever – the majority of their child-appealing products were deemed unhealthy. However, the number of such products varied significantly, ranging from 58 from Mondelez to just 10 from Unilever. 

Bite Back found one product from Kraft Heinz that met the unhealthy criteria and none from Danone. Coca-Cola products were out of scope as the survey focused on packaged food. 

Vin, 15, a Bite Back youth activist, said politicians and decision-makers must take note of the “real challenges we as young people face. When I go to a shop with my little sister, she goes straight for the bright packaging, for products with characters and colours, and of course, they’re the unhealthy products. It annoys me that companies use these tactics to attract children to buy their products and personify unhealthy products to make them more appealing.” 

The campaigners took their findings, which were verified and analysed by nutrition experts from Action on Salt, to an evidence session with the House of Lords food, diet and obesity committee this month. They showed peers examplesof the packaging designs that companies like Kellogg’s use to entice children.

In February, Bite Back published an investigation of the 10 biggest global food and drink businesses operating in the UK with research from the University of Oxford. That report (Are food giants rigging the system against child health?)– revealed that 7 in 10 of the top global food companies make 68% of their packaged food and drink sales in the UK from unhealthy products.

Chef, campaigner and Bite Back co-founder, Jamie Oliver said: “Whether it’s through fun characters, bright images or exciting new shapes, these switched-on companies are choosing them because they know they will capture young minds. We see this trick being used in supermarket aisles, on our high streets, and online, and is yet another way companies are bombarding kids with unhealthy junk food.”

Bite Back has called on food manufacturers to remove child-appealing features from the packaging of products that are high in fat, sugar or salt or would qualify for a red label on front-of-pack for any nutrient. 

The group also wants the government to introduce new regulations that restrict the use of child-appealing features on the packaging of unhealthy products (as part of a package of measures to protect children from unhealthy food and drink marketing).