Food marketing towards kids now geared towards parents

I recently saw a Malt-O-Meal cereal commercial featuring a mother and her two children sitting in the kitchen of their home. In the commercial, the mother looks at her children, who are wearing costumes, and says "My kids have questionable taste in fashion, but they have great taste in cereal," she then holds up a bag of Cookie Bites cereal and says "Malt-O-Meal, my kids love it for the taste and I love it for the price".

It's unsurprising that children would like a bowl of chocolate chip cookies for breakfast, but what did surprise me was the fact that this product was being sold to parents. It wasn't so long ago that fun cartoon characters and colourful packaging were the norm when it came to cereal advertising and children were the target audience, not their parents. Now the guarantee of a cheaper product or more nutritional value helps to sell breakfast cereals. Why the change in marketing?

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Over the past decade there has been growing concern over the negative health impact of marketing unhealthy foods to children. According to a review by the National Academies' Institute of Medicine, studies show that television food advertising affects children's food choices, food purchase requests, diets, and overall health. The majority (over 90%) of food and beverage advertisements viewed by children and teens online are for processed foods and beverages high in fat, sodium, or sugar.

For the past 10 years the food and beverage industry in Canada has set its own standards and self-regulated its marketing through the Canadian Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CAI). The program is not mandatory and the nutrient criteria is determined by the industry and is nutritionally weak overall. Lucky Charms and Froot Loops would meet the criteria established in the grain category.

In 2015 the federal government began to take steps in restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children in an effort to curb the rising rates of obesity and chronic disease, as part of Health Canada's Healthy Eating Strategy. Front-of-package labeling for foods higher in sugar, sodium and saturated fat was also introduced. Following public consultation in the summer of 2017, Health Canada produced a report summarizing the feedback received and is now working to establish marketing requirements. There has been push-back from industry stakeholders, including the Association of Canadian Advertisers, who said the proposed restrictions are "significantly overboard" and the restrictions applying to teenagers younger than 17 were "paternalistic".

In 2016, Bill S-228 (the Child Health Protection Act) was introduced in Senate to amend the Food and Drugs Act, prohibiting food and beverage marketing from being directed at children. The Bill was passed by the Senate and is now at the Report Stage in the House of Commons.

Since changes to the marketing of foods and beverages seems almost inevitable, advertisements are now shifting towards parents as their target audience. Now it becomes even more important to be aware of the nutritional content of the products you're buying, the validity of product claims and the value of food to the overall health of you and your family. Healthy eating habits are developed from a young age and can contribute to development and overall health later in life. For more information on the effects of marketing foods and beverages to children and to see what Dietitians of Canada has done in this area visit:

Kelsey Leckovic is a Registered Dietitian with Northern Health working in chronic disease management.

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