How Big Companies Market Unhealthy Food To Children

If you’ve ever watched Saturday morning cartoons with your child, you’ve lightly been subject to a barrage of loud and colorful ads showcasing inexpensive convenience food like it's a harmless novelty. In reality, almost all of the food in those ads is high in unhealthy fats, sugar, and or sodium. Your child doesn’t know that. They simply see something that looks delicious and fun, and they ask you to buy them the treats from TV.

Marketing has a tendency to be highly deceptive. In order to successfully sell something, companies emphasize a product’s strong points. They may be eager to talk about the 10 grams of protein, cleverly skirting around the 24 grams of added sugars. Food companies don’t make it easy for parents to make informed decisions without further reading. 

Before you allow that new cereal or that box of chicken nuggets to your family’s diet, you need to understand how these advertisements work and how excessive consumption of these foods may be harmful to your family’s health. 

The Health of American Children

Childhood obesity rates are on the rise. One in every five children in the United States is obese, with more falling under the umbrella of overweight. Every year, 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes, and this includes people under the age of 20. Unhealthy children can easily become unhealthy adults, especially if they don’t understand the basics of nutrition and proper healthcare. 

If you find these facts cause for concern, you should. Obesity and diabetes can impact your child if you don’t take a proactive approach to your child’s health. Part of that approach should include understanding the marketing tactics used to entice young children with unhealthy foods and drinks. An equally important part of that approach is teaching your child the basics of nutrition. They’re never too young to learn how to make healthy choices.

Food Marketing to Children

Food and beverage industries spend an astounding $2 billion a year marketing to youth. This weighty budget allows companies to insert themselves into every TV channel, every pre-roll and mid-roll advertisement on YouTube, and banner and video ads on popular ad-supported streaming services.

These ads sometimes use cartoon characters. They’re often funny, bright, and captivating. They sometimes incorporate cross branding, bringing the characters they love into the realm of unhealthy foods and increasing their appeal. Their message is simple. They want to make junk food look like fun. 

The only way to keep your child from being exposed to these ads is to use ad-free subscriptions to all of your household services, but this still may not be the best option. It won’t ultimately teach them how to differentiate healthy foods from appealing foods.

Although initiatives have been undertaken to change the way unhealthy foods and drinks are marketed to children, they aren’t always perfect. Phrases like “part of a balanced breakfast” probably don’t mean much to a six year old watching weekend cartoons. In some cases, food companies skirt the line by applying an artificial “health halo” to their products.

Don’t Believe in the Health Halo

The “health halo” is a series of marketing or branding tactics cleverly designed to trick consumers, including parents, into believing that a product is healthier than it actually is. Many health halo terms sound meaningful, but are inherently meaningless.

You may see “no hormones” on the packaging of raw chicken. This leads you to believe that the chicken you’re purchasing is somehow healthier than other chicken. The reality of the matter is that hormones have been banned in poultry production since 1950’s. Of course there are no hormones in your chicken. They wouldn’t be allowed to sell it otherwise. 

Terms like “organic” can also lead people to believe that something is healthy when it isn’t. Organic added sugars will impact your child the same way any other added sugar will. Organic farming practices do not change the nutrition content of food - they merely change the pesticides used in its cultivation. An organic lollipop is just as nutritionally dubious as any other kind of lollipop. 

The health halo extends to the packaging of food and clever word choices. Take a children’s fast food meal with cheeseburgers, fries, and a chocolate shake. Put everything in packaging colored green. Include a picture of a cow on a grassy meadow, and a bunch of fresh ripe strawberries and neatly cut potatoes. Use this verbage:

“Our pasture raised beef contains 15 grams of beef per serving. We use organic hand-cut potatoes, ripe organic strawberries, and heirloom tomatoes. Our artisan rolls are enriched with calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate to provide your growing child with the nutrients they need for a healthy mind and body.”

None of that means anything. According to McDonalds, their normal cheeseburger, small fries, and small strawberry shake combine to create a meal with 1,020 calories, 75 grams of sugar, 15.6 grams of saturated fat, 142 grams of carbohydrates. If they packaged or described their product that way, it wouldn’t change those facts.

Imagery is also used to mislead parents. Many products that show fruit on the packaging contain little to no actual fruit, instead relying on artificial fruit flavors or small amounts of fruit concentrate to provide the flavor without the benefits.

The only way to know for sure whether or not a food is healthy for your child is to look at the nutrition facts. Check the calories, protein, and sugars. See if the vitamins and nutrients your child needs are included on the packaging. Remember that lower calorie doesn’t necessarily mean healthier if the food is nearly void of important nutrients. 

Teaching Your Child About Nutrition

Instead of blocking all advertisements from your child’s life, explain to your child why the food in the advertisements isn’t actually good for them. Teach your child the differences between smart choices and unhealthy choices. 

This doesn’t mean you should deprive your child of things they like that aren’t always nutritionally sound. An active child who wants to go out for ice cream after a soccer game is unlikely to be harmed by a little chocolate and a few errant sprinkles. It’s better to teach your child that moderation is the key to enjoying the occasional treat in a healthy way. 

Pizza night is okay. There’s a time and a place for cake. Your child needs to know that. Your child also needs to know about the vitamins and nutrients they need to power their body, why protein is an important part of their diet, and what added sugars and unnecessary fats can do to sabotage their health.

Setting Your Child Up for a Healthy Adulthood

Setting your child up for a healthy adulthood is just as important as setting your child up with a college fund. You want to make sure your child is able to have a solid future and make good choices. You should be equally as concerned with their diet. If your child’s perspective of nutrition is fundamentally strong, they’re going to have a lot to learn once they become independent. 

One of the best ways to set children up for a healthy adulthood is to invite them into the kitchen. Cook with them. Let them help with the meal planning. Show them how to calculate the overall nutrition of a meal. This hands-on approach creates an opportunity for more family bonding while teaching your child an important life skill. If they know how to cook for themselves, they won’t feel dependent on takeout when college rolls around. 

The Takeaway

It’s important to keep your children healthy, but it’s even more important to teach your children to keep themselves healthy. They’re always going to want things that aren’t necessarily great for them. And occasionally, you should allow them to indulge. There’s a huge difference between restriction and moderation. As long as your child’s diet is well rounded and mostly healthy, the occasional treat isn’t harmful. 

Round out your child’s health with an excellent multivitamin. Hiya’s multivitamin is formulated specifically for children and backed by experts. A multivitamin, when used in conjunction with a balanced diet, can help fill in the nutritional gaps that come from picky eating. Our vitamins are made from fruits and veggies and naturally sweetened with monk fruit. You won’t find any added sugar here. Just honest ingredients and no junk. 

Sources:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24206260/

https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/index.html

https://www.diabetes.org/resources/statistics/statistics-about-diabetes

https://www.ftc.gov/reports/marketing-food-children-adolescents-review-industry-expenditures-activities-self-regulation

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