Over-Nourishment catches up Undernourishment

Nania Poulson—10/2004
As the number of over-nourished catches up the number of undernourished people in the world, we need to take a hard look at our modern diets.

IN ITS AUGUST EDITION, the National Geographic highlighted a startling fact: there are now as many over nourished people as undernourished around the world. It points the finger at a dangerous mixture of increased calorie consumption, labour saving technology and the powerful marketing of fast food. In Europe more than half of all food adverts promote fast food, sweetened cereals and confectionary, so it is unsurprising that in the last five years in the UK alone snack food consumption has risen 25 percent.

At the end of last year a report was commissioned from Ofcom (Office of Communications) to re-evaluate the existing code on the TV advertising of exactly these kinds of snack foods and drinks to children. The report failed to call for a total ban on this type of TV advertising. There seemed to be a general feeling of surprise in the media that there was going to be no real action against broadcasters and advertisers as a result of the report. In fact this lack of action should not be in the least bit surprising when you consider the economics of the situation.

Even in the introduction to the report Ofcom set out that although it has a duty of protection to children this must be balanced by what they describe as, "a healthy broadcasting ecology." They go on to comment that if their findings have a negative impact on either broadcasters or stakeholders (advertisers?) that changes are unlikely to be acceptable unless there is a "clear and significant social benefit." Basically it boils down to the fact that broadcasters cannot afford to lose the £522M a year which is spent on advertising confectionery, soft drinks, crisps, savoury snacks, fast food and pre-sugared breakfast cereals to children every year. Not to mention the sums at stake to the food industry, in 2002 £433M was spent on junk food by 8 - 16 year olds on their way to and from school, alone!

However the report makes fascinating reading and really highlights the lifestyle trends which shape the way we eat, the way we feed our children and the way in which food is marketed, not just to children but to all of us. Modern living has moved us far away from the three square meals a day of our parents' generation. We seem to be grazing and snacking around increasingly long working hours and this is affecting our children's diets. Now that we are relatively cash rich and time poor the food industry have many more marketing opportunities to create "instant" food which caters to our overwhelming need and desire for convenience. This has resulted in cereal bars for breakfast and microwaveable meals and snacks for quick fixes. The demand for ready meals has grown by 42% since 1990. In comparison to the French we eat twice as many ready meals and six times as many as the Spanish. 80% of British homes have a microwave compared to 27% of Italian households. Apart from the health aspects of eating this kind of food, these figures suggest that we are also loosing the tradition of cooking in this country.

In their quantitative survey Ofcom found only one fifth of parents and children to be enthusiastic about cooking and that 42% of children did not like to help cooking. The basic skills required to make a soup, pastry or a simple vegetable stew used to be learnt by watching and helping in the kitchen but with this level of disinterest it looks like these skills will totally die out. Then the crisis will redouble as it will not just be a case of simply re-educating people about what to eat but, also how to cook it!

There is also a growing trend towards children eating on their own. In these cases the child's tastes are more specifically catered for with sugary and salty foods and they are therefore not being exposed to a variety of so called "adult" foods. These "children only" meals are another opportunity for the food industry to create ready meals which children can prepare alone. These meals tend not only to contain high levels of salt and fat and generally low levels of vitamins and minerals which are lost in the processing, they also tend not to be eaten with vegetables, never mind parents!

So this convenience trend is the fertile ground on to which advertising scatters the seeds of suggestions about which brands are desirable. However the report concludes firmly that the level to which TV advertising does have an effect is considered to be only a "modest" one. It claims that in fact compared with other influences on children's food choices it is only a small factor and that as a single approach to reducing obesity that banning TV advertising to children would be ineffective. However the other influences cited by the report are taste preference, price, familiarity, peer pressure and parental convenience. Surely these "other influences" are the direct product of advertising and clever marketing by food manufacturers. Familiarity with food products and brands comes from advertising, peer pressure comes from other children's exposure to brand pressure, taste preference, price and convenience for parents are simply part of the marketing package.

The report does admit that the indirect effects of advertising such as peers attitudes and raising awareness via other forms of promotion do have a substantial and powerful effect. However as the report points out, this is not only un-researched but also probably un-researchable. It seems trite to discount this aspect of influence because it cannot be exactly quantified but that is exactly what the report does; it simply says that as research cannot provide an "uncontroversial demonstration of the causal effect" that it is therefore not able to use it as valid evidence.

I think we realise by now that the fight against obesity in our children will have to be a many pronged approach including exercise, teaching them to cook, better school lunches etc. In the meantime surely a sensible starting point would be to drastically reduce the marketing opportunities these food giants have to establish brand relationships with children so early on in their consumer lives.