Popular children’s magazines are contributing to unhealthy food marketing to children and adolescents, according to research from the University of Auckland.
To gain this conclusion, researchers looked at the nature and extent of food marketing in popular children’s magazines and showed that unhealthy foods were marketed most frequently, while references to healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables were relatively rare.
First of its kind
“This is the first study in New Zealand to comprehensively evaluate magazine food marketing to children and adolescents,” said principal investigator Dr Stefanie Vandevijvere.
Both branded and unbranded food references were common within magazines targeted at, and popular among, children and adolescents, and were skewed towards unhealthy foods.
“These findings are consistent with international findings and the results from food marketing through other media such as television and sports sponsorship in New Zealand,” she added.
The content analysis study looked at five magazines with the highest readership among 10 to 17 year olds, and another title targeted specifically at this age group. It involved one issue per month for a year for each magazine between December 2012 and January 2014.
All foods referenced were classified into healthy or unhealthy foods, according to a food-based Ministry of Health system.
Branded food references were more frequent for unhealthy foods (43%) compared to healthy foods (25%). Magazines specifically targeted to children and adolescents contained a significantly higher proportion of unhealthy branded food references (72%) compared to those targeted at older population groups (42%).
Snack items such as chocolates and ice cream were marketed most frequently (36%) while vegetables and fruit were marketed the least (3%).
Does self-regulation work?
“This raises concerns about the efficacy of self-regulation in marketing and emphasises that government regulations are needed to curb children’s potential high exposure to unhealthy food marketing,” said Vandevijvere, adding that magazine editors should take a more socially responsible position towards healthy eating.
New Zealand advertising is self-regulated, with the Advertising Standards Authority at the centre of the system.
While this self-regulation may help control deceptive or misleading food marketing, it does not seem to stop the delivery of messages that are inconsistent with public health policy goals, Vendevijvere said.
“They even seem to breach their own code which stipulates that food marketing should not undermine the food and nutrition policies of the government, the Ministry of Health’s Food and Nutrition Guidelines, nor the health and wellbeing of children
“It’s concerning that the overwhelming majority of branded food references in popular magazines read by children is for unhealthy food.”
High readership of the magazines included in the study indicated that exposure to this form of food marketing was potentially high. The best solution, according to Vendevijvere, would be to tackle the issue at regulatory level.
“Although food marketing to children has been widely debated, and the food industry has introduced some self-regulatory codes on marketing to children, the high frequency of unhealthy food references found in magazines provides evidence for the need for a stronger regulatory approach.”