Food companies too often expose children to advertising for unhealthy food, according to a recent study from Belgium’s health institute Sciensano.
The comprehensive study provided an overview of food companies' commitments and practices on food environments and population nutrition.
One of their findings was that companies aren’t doing enough in terms of nutrition, health and obesity prevention, in particular when it comes to children.
“Food companies should definitely tighten up their policies and actions in this area,” Sciensano researcher Stefanie Vandevijvere said.
Sciensano defined an unhealthy food environment as one where circumstances - be they economic, physical or policy - make it easier to choose unhealthy food and drink than healthy ones.
“Obesity and diet-related chronic diseases are major health problems in Belgium and are caused, among other things, by an unhealthy food environment,” the health institute explained.
“Unhealthy food environments are one of the major drivers of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. Actions from the government, the food industry and society all contribute to the healthiness of food environments.”
The World Health Organisation’s Regional Office for Europe nutrient profile model forbids many food companies from marketing their products to children at all.
Sciensano looked at the 31 largest food companies in Belgium and scored them based on how well they adhered to different policies, including this one.
Many companies scored low, earning recommendations from Sciensano that included eliminating the use of promotion techniques with strong appeal to children (for example cartoon characters or interactive games) in relation to less healthy products.
Another recommendation for some of those companies that scored low in this area was to implement a marketing to children policy that restricts the exposure of children and adolescents to promotion of less healthy foods across broadcast and non-broadcast media.
Eight out of 31 companies had no commitments whatsoever to the Belgian Pledge regarding not marketing unhealthy food products to kids, mostly of them being quick service restaurants.
Four companies even explicitly opposed government restrictions on unhealthy food marketing to children.
“No companies had developed formal responsible marketing to children policies that would effectively restrict the exposure of children and adolescents to ‘less healthy’ food promotion,” Sciensano found.
Their study also reports that just four out of 19 packaged food and beverage manufacturers committed not to sponsor children’s sporting, cultural or other activities using unhealthy foods and brands.
Apart from Exki, a food company that conducts no advertising whatsoever, none of the quick service restaurants made such a commitment, Sciensano said.
Most of the companies with higher scores in this area were the well-known chain grocery stores like Delhaize, Lidl, Colruyt, Carrefour and Aldi.
Those supermarkets were ranked in that order (best to worst) according to their BIA Obesity Score, BIA meaning Business Impact Assessment.
The objective of the study was “to highlight, in the Belgian context, where food companies are showing some leadership, identify best available practice examples, identify areas for improvement, and make specific recommendations tailored by policy domain, sector and company,” the report explained.