Popular children’s magazines are contributing to unhealthy food marketing to children and adolescents, according to research from the University of Auckland.
The study 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.
“This is the first study in New Zealand to comprehensively evaluate magazine food marketing to children and adolescents,” principal investigator Dr Stefanie Vandevijvere, a research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Auckland says.
Both branded and unbranded food references were common within the 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 says.
The content analysis study looked at five magazines with the highest readership among 10 to 17 year -lds and another 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 (30 per cent of the total references) were more frequent for unhealthy foods (43 per cent) compared to healthy foods (25 per cent). Magazines specifically targeted to children and adolescents contained a significantly higher proportion of unhealthy branded food references (72 per cent) compared to those targeted at older population groups (42 per cent).
Snack items, such as chocolates and ice-cream, were marketed most frequently (36 per cent), while vegetables and fruit were marketed the least (three per cent).
“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,” Dr Vandevijvere says. “Magazine editors could take socially responsible editorial positions in regards to healthy eating.
“In New Zealand, advertising is self-regulated by the communications and media industry with the Advertising Standards Authority at the centre of the system. While this self-regulation may help control clearly deceptive and misleading food marketing targeted at children, it does not seem to stop the delivery of messages that are inconsistent with public health policy goals,” she says.
“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 well-being of children,” Dr Vandevijvere says.
“It’s concerning that the overwhelming majority of branded food references in popular magazines read by children is for unhealthy food.”
She says the high readership of the magazines included in the study, indicated that exposure to this form of food marketing was potentially high.
“The establishment of food marketing regulations is recommended, to promote healthy diets and reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing.
“Magazines also need to be aware of their role in contributing to the continued increase in unhealthy food consumption and obesity. Magazines could take socially responsible editorial positions on healthy eating and reducing obesity, such as they do for similar issues (such as for self-esteem not showing skinny models).
“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,” Dr Vandevijvere says.