Any idea what your children ate today? Whatever it was, chances are it contained significant amounts of sodium benzoate (E211), Sunset Yellow (E110), Ponceau 4R (E124), salt, Aspartame (E951), Carmoisine (E122) - oh, and probably lots of sugar.
But that's what you get from a diet of high-fat cereal bars, energy drinks, cheese slices, pizza and crisps. It's also the reason why childhood obesity rates in Europe are so high: of the 70 million five to 18 year olds in the EU, more than five million were obese and 11 million overweight. Britain, along with some southern European countries, was top of the list, and millions of those children were so overweight that they were already showing signs of chronic diseases, which could lead to major problems in adulthood. In the EU more than 560,000 had high blood pressure and more than 640,000 primary school-aged children in Europe suffered from high cholesterol, with a further 640,000 suffering from Non Alcohol Fatty Liver Disease.
A sedentary lifestyle is partly to blame but so, increasingly, is diet. According to a UK Government National Diet and Nutrition Survey, 92 percent of children consume more saturated fat than the maximum recommended level for adults, and 83 percent consume added sugars above suggested limits. And because they are so busy heeding the call of marketing pitches for fizzy drinks and high-fat breakfast cereals, many European children only have time to eat less than half the recommended daily portions of fruit and vegetables.
Chairman and Founder of the International Obesity Task Force, Professor Phillip James, warns we face and 'epidemic' of childhood obesity and point the finger firmly in the direction of food marketers.
"Children are targeted as consumers and are vulnerable to sophisticated marketing techniques and intense, repetitive advertising for the high-calorie, high-energy foods and drinks which are significant contributory factors to the rise in obesity. The marketing pressure starts well before they reach school age and is designed to 'overtly manipulate the child to demand a high-energy-dense diet'."
It's one of the reasons behind a review by the European Commission to look at measures to restrict the advertising of unhealthy foods to children.
Tim Lobstein, director of policy at the International Association for the Study of Obesity (ISAO) was commissioned by the European Commission to draft a report aimed at gathering evidence to support policy making on the marketing of foods to children. Entitled the EU Polmark Study, it looked at the range and nature of current advertising regulations on food and beverage marketing of foods to children in 27 EU member states, and aimed to promote an understanding of current and anticipated regulatory controls, as well as researching the relationships between stakeholders' positions on marketing controls and their capacity to influence policy.
"There has been significant progress in the past six years to curb the marketing of unhealthy foods to kids, but there is chaos within the details," says Lobstein. "An increasing number of countries are trying to address this issue, with some introducing regulations addressing television advertising during children's programming or the use of familiar personalities or fictional characters to promote products during that television slot (see side-bar). There is real progress but the challenges are numerous," said Lobstein.
"Firstly, most countries do not address advertising to children by the calorie content or other nutrient quality of the food product and marketing channels beyond broadcast advertising have been largely ignored. Secondly, our research has shown that there's a certain amount of anarchy at the moment and concluded that the terms need to be set by government, not the industry itself, because although they appear to be willing, there's chaos within the details, with a lot of contradiction in what the industry is offering."
The issue of food marketing to children has dominated debate for some years and, as far back as 2005, EU Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Markos Kyprianou issued warnings to the food industry that it must restrict advertising of products high in fat, sugar and salt to children, or face legislation. This was followed by the 'EU Pledge' in December 2007, when 11 leading food and beverage companies agreed to stop running junk food adverts on TV, in print and on the internet to under-12s by the end of 2008. The original signatories, which represent more than 50 percent of the food and beverage advertising spend in the EU, included Burger King, Coca-Cola, Danone, Ferrero, General Mills, Kellog, Mars, Nestle, Unilever , Kraft Foods and PepsiCo.
And in 2009, the World Health Organisation (WHO) weighed into the debate, releasing a no-holds barred report that set recommendations for the marketing of foods and beverages to children. The objective was to reduce both "the exposure of children to, and power of, marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt". "Governments should be the key stakeholders in the development of policy and provide leadership, through a multi-stakeholder platform, for implementation, monitoring and evaluation. In setting the national policy framework, governments may choose to allocate defined roles to other stakeholders, while protecting the public interest and avoiding a conflict of interest," said the report.
Lobstein, however, believes that voluntary measures adopted by manufacturers and advertisers don't go far enough in the battle of the childhood bulge.
"Food companies are making pledges and showing that they are sticking to those, but the pledges have loopholes. They don't all stick to the same criteria around the definition of marketing, the age group of children and the foods that are covered," he said.
"Companies have been pushing the boundaries into children's social marketing networks, school playgrounds, text messaging to mobile phones, and so on, undermining any likely parental controls. We need a system that supports, rather than hinders, the efforts of parents to prevent obesity in their children. You cannot expect the industry to reform itself when so much money would be lost."
Fat's all folks
It's Advertising 101: when trying to attract the attention of the younger set, use colourful packaging and characters they recognize or can identify with. No surprise then that everyone from Shrek and Scooby Doo to Tony the Tiger and most of Disney's stable are used to market foods high in fat, sugar and salt to younger children.
However, the tide could be turning with a growing trend for food and beverage brands to ally themselves with the values of well-known characters, and to leverage them to attract young consumers to more healthy fare.
Take the example of UK company Peter Rabbit (PR) Organics, which sells a range of fruit juices and purees, pasta, sauces and fruit-sweetened cookies represented by famous author Beatrix Potter's animal characters. All products in the range are free from added sugar and salt, and none contain artificial colours, flavours or preservatives.
Ben Ford, managing director of PR Organics, was reported as saying that the brand has strong links to nature, to the environment, healthy living and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Companies such as Crosse & Backwell and Heinz have also jumped on the bandwagon of using cartoon characters to endorse their pasta shapes. Crosse & Blackwell Wholewheat Pasta Shapes, for example, featured characters such as Barney, Scooby-Doo and
Tom & Jerry, and were low in fat, saturates, sugar and salt. Also in the range were Tweenies, Thomas the Tank Engine, Spongebob SquarePants, Bob the Builder and Bratz. Heinz Pasta Shapes , which also came in low in the fat, saturates and sugar stakes, featured a range of characters on the tin, including Winnie the Pooh, Thomas the Tank Engine, Spiderman and Disney Princess.