The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released new guidelines to support healthier eating among children below the age of 18.
The new guidelines recommend countries around the globe to implement policies to restrict marketing of foods high in saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, free sugars and/or salt (HFSS foods) to children. WHO advises that policies restricting the marketing of HFSS foods should be mandatory, protect children of all ages, and use a nutrient profile model to determine which foods require restrictions. The guidelines also recommend that these policies should be comprehensive to minimize risk of marketing in other media.
“This group of guidelines provides all elements to design healthy diets,” says Ailan Li, Assistant Director-General Division of Universal Health Coverage-Healthier Populations at the WHO.
It has been thirteen years since WHO released recommendations on policies to restrict the marketing of HFSS foods to children. The new set builds upon the WHO’s 2010 recommendations. Changes address the advancement of new marketing media and techniques, recent evidence on effectiveness of policies and different policy approaches, and country’s inadequate efforts to prioritize implementation.
“All of these guidelines aim to support governments in creating healthy food environments to facilitate healthy dietary decisions, establish lifelong healthy eating habits, improve dietary quality and decrease the risk of noncommunicable diseases worldwide,” states a press release from WHO.
A healthy diet early in life plays a crucial role in creating a solid foundation that contributes to overall wellbeing, according to a report from the WHO. It shows that the most frequently marketed foods are those with low nutritional value including, sugar-sweetened beverages, salty/savory snacks, sweet bakery items and snacks, breakfast cereals, dairy products, and desserts. Promotion of unhealthy foods can shape children’s requests to adults for such products and influence the norms surrounding food consumption.
“Healthy diets are influenced by availability, affordability, preferences, values, culture, traditions, religion, among other factors, including motivations related to social and other considerations related to food production,” says Lynnette Neufeld, Director of the Food and Nutrition Division at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
“Companies are not in the business of selling healthy foods but are in the business of selling ultra-processed foods. Even when there are healthy messages, they are drowned out by the unhealthy messages,” Jennifer Harris, Senior Research Advisor for Marketing Initiatives at the Rudd Center tells Food Tank.
Food marketing has significant influence over younger audiences by using techniques that appeal and resonate with children and impacting their food preferences and dietary choices. “Parents need to understand the marketing is a very psychological process that creates strong associations between unhealthy products and that they are fun, cool, and much more interesting compared to healthy foods,” Harris says.
Research from The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics shows that children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to harmful food marketing. This is because of immature cognitive and emotional development, peer-group influence, and high exposure. And according to research published in the Journal of Macromarketing reveals that food marketing targeting children is linked to the development of obesity.
“Changing diet is a need. We need to change diet to reduce the risk of obesity and risk of diet related non-communicable diseases, which all together account for almost one-third of the global burden of disease,” says Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety for the WHO.
But to ensure that the recommendations are taken seriously, Harris says that parents and children need to demand change and challenge food companies. “Parents need to get angry and fed up with companies for taking advantage of their kids,” Harris tells Food Tank. “Adolescents can play big advocacy roles and challenge the companies on promotion of foods bad for their health.”
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