Food producers have been under fire in the UK for several months now about the growing number of products targeted at children which lobbyists claim are contributing to the increasingly poor health of the nation.
Just last month, the Food Commission took manufacturers and retailers to task for promoting confectionery products at supermarket checkouts, and the summer saw a number of other campaigns against the food industry, from the International Obesity Task Force, for example, for its apparently cynical attempts to target children with food which is frequently less-than-healthy.
The latest broadside comes from the Consumers' Association, publishers of the Which? magazine and author of the Marketing Food to Kids study earlier in the year, and controversially claims that children who eat a regular diet of foods specifically marketed with them in mind could face future health problems.
The CA report highlights what it claims are confusing or misleading labels on a number of products targeted at children, adding that regular consumption of these products could ultimately lead to a range of health problems from diabetes to tooth decay and cancer.
Among the products highlighted by the CA study were Kellogg's 'Frosties Turbos', a breakfast cereal which claims that its benefits include healthy bones and heart health. However, the association said that the product contained five times as much sugar as similar products in the adult market such as Kellogg's Cornflakes
Others were criticised for misleading labels: Wild's Capri-Sun Blackcurrant Juice Drink contains only 5.1 per cent blackcurrant, with a similar amount of apple, according to the CA, while Sainsbury's Blue Parrot Café Mild Chicken Curry with Rice ready meal was found to contain only 14 per cent chicken.
The organisation also highlighted failures in labelling legislation - labelling rules require UK manufacturers to label sodium but many do not label salt content, for example, a fact which causes confusion because government recommendations for target average intake refer to salt, not sodium which is not the same.
This means that many products are able to make claims about their salt content which are misleading, the CA claims. For example, Heinz's Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends Pasta Shapes in tomato sauce with mini sausages make a 'five a day' claim, but contain 0.5g of sodium.
In the light of these alarming findings, the Consumers' Association invited a nutritionist, Dr Helen Crawley, to analyse two daily menus of food a child between seven and ten years old might consume in a single day, based on the claims and marketing messages made on the products.
Dr Crawley concluded that to follow such a diet on a regular basis would be damaging to a child's health. It could increase their risk of becoming overweight as well as their risk of developing diseases such as tooth decay, diabetes and more worryingly, some cancers and heart disease later in life.
Sue Davies, principal policy advisor at the Consumers' Association, said: "It is unacceptable that ranges aimed at children are nutritionally poorer than adult versions. Food manufacturers and retailers need to change their practices to ensure that products marketed at children do not contain higher levels of sugar, fat or salt than standard adult versions.
"The conclusions of the dietician's analysis is shocking. To follow such a diet on a regular basis would be damaging to a child's health. It could increase their risk of becoming overweight as well as their risk of developing diseases such as tooth decay, diabetes and more worryingly, some cancers and heart disease later in life.
With this startling possibility in mind, the CA has called on food manufacturers and retailers to take more action to ensure that products aimed at children do not contain higher levels of sugar, fat and salt than products aimed at adults, and to ensure that cartoons and images aimed at children are not be placed on products with high levels of sugar, fat or salt.
It also called on the European Parliament to support the European Commission's proposals to regulate health and nutrition claims - proposals which have been broadly criticised by the food manufacturing and retail sectors but which the CA said would force manufacturers to prove health claims before they are marketed, provide legal definitions for nutrition claims such as low fat, and set nutrition criteria to prohibit products high in fat, salt or sugar from carrying such a claim.
But the UK food industry has been quick to condemn the Consumers' Association for being 'irresponsible' in its scaremongering tactics.
Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the Food and Drink Federation, said that it was "absolutely untrue to suggest that children's products are damaging to health" and that "the food industry works with regulators and parents to ensure that its products are safe, wholesome and can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet".
He continued: "The food industry takes the health of its consumers -especially children - very seriously. With 20-30,000 products on sale in many supermarkets, never before has there been so much variety from which parents and children can build a healthy, balanced, diet. It is also estimated that over 80 per cent of UK produced, pre-packed manufactured foods now routinely provide nutritional labelling to help consumers' purchasing decisions.
"The industry does not in any way set out to mislead its customers. In fact, the 1990 Food Safety Act already protect consumers from misleading claims stating that 'marketing claims and labelling should be truthful, accurate and not misleading'. Manufacturers should be able to communicate a product's benefit to their customers. Does the Consumers' Association believe that consumers don't want to know about it on the basis of the product's other ingredients?"