For Malcolm Clarke, co-ordinator for the Children's Food Campaign, cereals are an example of how food manufacturers try to sidestep the healthy eating issue by loading their products up with sugar and vitamins at the same time.
“Breakfast cereals are some of the worst in terms of misdirecting consumers with boasts about fortification and/or high fibre, whilst still being high (or very high) in sugar,” he said.
Tesco Frosted Flakes, for example, contain nearly 40g of sugar per 100g but are also fortified with iron, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, riboflavin, thiamin, folic acid, vitamin D and vitamin B12.
Meanwhile, a recent survey by Action on Sugar says sugar content in ready-to-eat breakfast cereals has increased in a fifth of UK breakfast cereals since 2012.
According to John McQuaid, author of Tasty: The art and science of what we eat, sugar is an easy way for companies to appeal to children.
“There is no clearer form of gratification in the human brain than sweetness; many scientists think it is the original foundation of pleasure. So it’s easy for food companies to tap into that.”
Food manufacturers are being blamed for using sugar as a lowest common denominator selling point in trying to sell their products. Malcolm Clarke told FoodNavigator that manufacturers are exploiting children’s natural sugar preference for their own benefit.
“Whilst young children may have innate preferences for slight sweetness, manufacturers and marketers have exploited this so that the taste profile/preference of children is warped – so that appealing to sweet tastes is a self-reinforcing and beneficial choice for manufacturers rather than a neutral choice children make.”
Research has suggested that the implications of marketing specific unhealthy products to children goes beyond the scope of the product in question.
In a study published in Appetite Journal, researchers from the University of Oregon looked at how the food industry’s marketing of certain nutrient-poor, calorie-dense products toward children has wider implications in terms of changing their taste preferences for food in general.
“The main argument by the food industry to justify marketing to children is that companies only influence brand preferences, not preferences for categories of foods … [But] findings from the present research show that food marketing may not just influence category consumption but also fundamentally change children's taste palates to increase their liking of highly processed and less nutritious foods,” said the researchers.
According to Malcolm Clarke, children’s food manufacturers can successfully appeal to children and be healthy by adopting a five-point ‘best practice’ plan.
He says companies should 1) adopt colour-coded front-of pack nutrition labelling for their products, 2) reformulate to significantly reduce added sugar content across their entire range where relevant, 3) ensure that portion sizes and nutrition advice meets the new school food standards, 4) avoid marketing high salt and sugar content foods to under 16s, and 5) avoid using child-friendly brand characters, packaging, advergames or other such forms of marketing to promote less healthy products to children.
Last month, UK’s Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) called for more action to protect children from online advergames.