Protecting children from unhealthy food

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Akhtar Hussain Syed

IN this modern world, children use many food and beverage products and manufacturers of these products spend millions of rupees on marketing to capture maximum market shares. Their primary target is children. Worldwide, children are considered as a large consumer group. This segment is more vital for numerous food and beverage related business groups in a country like Pakistan where 50% population is below 18 years of age. This consumer group has remarkable influence on household expenditure. Children interact with retailers/business groups and purchase the things they like. Home delivery facility has made it very easy to order anything. What children are buying goes unsupervised especially when they go alone for shopping or outing.
Secondly, most parents allow children to buy or provide them their demanded items. Advertisement of food and beverages is playing an important role in influencing the minds of children as well as parents. As a result, today’s food environment is quite different to what our elders have experienced. It has shifted from homemade chapatti to fast food. Extensive varieties of food and beverage are available in the market. But at the same time, easy availability of these items, especially those containing salt, fat and sugar, pose a greater challenge to healthy diet and maintain weight especially among children. Advertising and other forms of marketing of products that contain excessive salt, fat and sugar to children is of primary concern.
According to World Health Organization “evidence shows that television advertising influences children’s food preferences, purchase requests and consumption patterns. Further, a wide range of techniques are used to market these products, reaching children in schools and supermarkets; through television and the Internet; and in many other settings”. And “Evidence from systematic reviews on the extent, nature and effects of food marketing to children concludes that advertising is extensive and other forms of food marketing to children are widespread across the world. Most of this marketing is for food with a high content of fat, sugar or salt”.
One of the forms of marketing is branding, another key strategy to build lifelong brand loyalty among impressionable children. They know the key to getting more consumers hooked on to their products is to target younger children. Specific branding has a powerful potential to alter young children’s taste preferences. Marketing to children does more than selling products, it inculcates habits and behaviors. In 2010, a study was conducted in Australia where 50 different brands across 16 product categories were presented to children in order to examine the recognition of brands among children. Study found that even children of 3-5 years of age were able to recognize different food brands.
State of affairs in Pakistan is not divergent. Study conducted in 2015 revealed that children between 8-10 years age are more attracted to TV ads and it has effects on their diet. Another study shows that children who spent more time watching TV preferred watching food related advertisements and preferred to purchase more commercialized food products. Children gave preference to market based food instead of home based. Young generation spend more money on junk food. Food companies are targeting kids and youngster through great promotional strategies and attractive advertisements.
Majority of the children usually liked to buy cold-drinks but some children liked to buy chips type products as well. The researcher find out that these products increase fats on children’s body because the age 8-12 years is the grooming age and they need proper and nutritionist diet for their health. Rapid modification in life style due to urbanization and consumption of unhealthy food and sugary drinks resulted in growing burden of overweight and obesity. According to WHO, nearly 18% children and adolescents between 5 to 19 years age were overweight in 2016. In Pakistan, overweight and obesity is contributing towards increase in burden of malnutrition. National Nutrition Survey 2018 reported that ratio of overweight children under five years of age has increased from 5% in 2011 to 9.5% in 2018. This proportion is double than set target by World Health Assembly. Average 11.4% adolescent (10-19 ages) girls and 10.2% adolescent boys are affected by overweight. Obesity rate is 7.7% among adolescent boys and 5.5% among adolescent girls.
Unhealthy diet is one of major risks of non-communicable diseases. This risk starts in childhood and builds up throughout life. To prevent future risk of non-communicable diseases it is essential that children should consume food that is low in saturated fat, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, and salt. In 2010, the World Health Assembly adopted range of recommendations on marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children. The recommendations aimed at reducing the impact on children of the marketing of energy dense food and beverages that contain high trans-fats, salt and free sugar. This is not the only requirement of World Health Assembly but UNCRC also requires that states should recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and should address disease and malnutrition.
Some countries like Norway, Sweden and Canada have made progress in line with World Health Assembly recommendations by banning marketing of any commercial products to children in broadcast media. Similarly, in the Canadian province of Quebec, ban has been imposed on advertisement of any goods directed at children under the age of 13. Since 9 years of adopting the recommendations of World Health Assembly, Pakistan has made no progress towards regulating the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages. Pakistan should take initiative to regulate marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products that are contributing in rising overweight and obesity issues. Parents have more responsibility to develop healthy diet habits among their children from initial years of childhood. Awareness campaigns to promote healthy diet are keys to make our future generation healthy and to meet the commitments Pakistan has made to World Health Assembly to save children from diseases.
—The writer is a development professional and child rights supporter based in Islamabad.

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