Marketing Processed Food to Children can be Harmful
Over the past few decades, the incidence of childhood obesity has more than doubled and has emerged as a global health crisis. As many as 41% of children in the United States (US) are overweight, and 22% of adolescents ages 12-19 are obese.[1, 2] Certain ethnic minorities are particularly at risk for becoming overweight, with 26.2% of Hispanic children and 24.8% of Black American children considered obese. This trend often starts in preschool and continues through adolescence. Those who are obese during these developmental years are five times more likely to become obese adults.[4, 5] In turn, overweight children and teens are developing chronic health problems such as hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and other nutrition-related diseases – resulting in increases in lifetime illnesses that can lead to early death.[6, 7]
Despite public health efforts to remedy childhood obesity through many wide-reaching public health initiatives (e.g., Healthy People Initiatives), rates have continued to climb. This has occurred across all socio-economic groups.[4, 7] The consumption of ultra-processed foods appears to be at the center of the obesity epidemic.[8-10] Today’s children are exposed to a relentless barrage of food industry marketing designed to reinforce strong positive associations with junk foods high in fat, sugar, and salt, ultimately driving increased consumption and weight gain.
Large food processors appear to significantly shape childhood food preferences through targeted marketing of foods high in fat, sugar, and salt to youth. Large food processors often market ultra-processed foods through social media using a child’s favorite celebrity or “influencer.” These ads have been shown to increase the intake of unhealthy foods and weight gain in minority youth. A YouTube video on this topic produced by Anna Lappe can be accessed HERE.
The most recent “Healthy People 2030” goal proposes to “Reduce the proportion of US children and adolescents with obesity.” Unless food industry initiatives to market processed foods containing high amounts of fat, sugar, salt, and additives to children and adolescents are adequately bridled and replaced with healthier messages, this goal will likely not be met.
Countries like the United Kingdom have banned the advertising of processed foods high in fat, sugar, salt, and additives to youth on all media platforms. The US has no such protections for our youth, forcing public health officials to seek new and innovative ways to counter the effects of “big food processors.” To adequately address the needs of youth, prevention strategies are needed that encourage healthier diets and physical activity and that counter divisive marketing tactics used by many food manufacturers that are easily administered to the public. Lastly, public policies are sorely needed to protect our youth within the US from being victimized by food processors.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity facts. CLICK TO READ. Updated May 17, 2022.
2. Unicef. How many children in the US are overweight? CLICK TO READ. Updated 2019.
3. Atkins M, Castro I, Sharifi M, et al. Unmet social needs and adherence to pediatric weight management interventions: Massachusetts, 2017-2019. Am J Public Health. 2020;110(S2):S251-S257.
4. Trude ACB, Surkan PJ, Cheskin LJ, Gittelsohn J. A multilevel, multicomponent childhood obesity prevention group-randomized controlled trial improves healthier food purchasing and reduces sweet-snack consumption among low-income african-american youth. Nutr J. 2018;17(1):96-018-0406-2.
5. Simmonds M, Llewellyn A, Owen CG, Woolacott N. Predicting adult obesity from childhood obesity: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Obes Rev. 2016;17(2):95-107.
6. Lindberg L, Danielsson P, Persson M, Marcus C, Hagman E. Association of childhood obesity with risk of early all-cause and cause-specific mortality: A swedish prospective cohort study. PLoS Med. 2020;17(3):e1003078.
7. Kumar S, Kelly AS. Review of childhood obesity: From epidemiology, etiology, and comorbidities to clinical assessment and treatment. Mayo Clin Proc. 2017;92(2):251-265.
8. Bryan CJ, Yeager DS, Hinojosa CP. A values-alignment intervention protects adolescents from the effects of food marketing. Nat Hum Behav. 2019;3(6):596-603.
9. Oude Groeniger J, de Koster W, van der Waal J. Time-varying effects of screen media exposure in the relationship between socioeconomic background and childhood obesity. Epidemiology. 2020;31(4):578-586.
10. Coates AE, Hardman CA, Halford JCG, Christiansen P, Boyland EJ. Social media influencer marketing and children’s food intake: A randomized trial. Pediatrics. 2019;143(4):e20182554. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-2554. Epub 2019 Mar 4.
11. Lappe A. Marketing food to children. Manhattan, NY: YouTube; 2013.
12. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy people 2030. CLICK TO READ. Updated 2022.
13. GOV.UK. Restricting promotions of products high in fat, sugar and salt by location and volume price: Implementation guidance. CLICK TO READ. Updated 2022.