The types of products advertised did not reflect a balanced diet as healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables made up only a fraction of the adverts, according to the study published online in the European Journal of Public Health.
Yet at the same time, nearly every magazine contains advice on a healthier lifestyle, said Dr Jean Adams, lecturer in public health at Newcastle University, who lead the research for what is claimed to be the first-ever study of food adverts in UK magazines.
Dr Adams told FoodNavigator.com that food manufacturers carry the same degree of responsibility as cigarette manufacturers and play “a big role in the public health of the country”. However, tougher regulation was not necessarily the answer.
She said: “We’ve got regulations for food advertised to children in lots of different places, on TV and also in magazines and radio.
“But adults feel that they understand what adverts are about a bit more than children and I think we have got to respect that.”
She added: “We need to work with food manufacturers to get them to produce healthier food, rather than coming up with restrictions for what they can and can’t do.
“Instead of regulation, maybe we should think about getting a bit of balance on what is advertised.”
For the study called “Socio-economic and gender differences in nutritional content of foods advertised in popular UK weekly magazines”, researchers compared data on the nutritional content of foods advertised in 30 of the most widely-read weekly magazines during November 2007.
The nutritional analysis found that the foods being promoted were generally much higher in sugar and salt, and lower in fibre than the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations.
The results showed that 25.5 per cent of the adverts were for ready-meals, sauces and soups which tend to be high in salt and sugar.
And 23 per cent were categorised as "containing fat or sugar" including products such as ice-cream, chocolate bars, sweets and full sugar soft drinks.
However, government guidelines recommend these should be eaten only "sparingly".
Only 1.8 per cent was for fruit and vegetables and these were mainly in high-end magazines.
Dr Adams said that foods such as fruit and vegetables aren’t advertised so much because they do not have big food manufacturers behind them.
She suggested that one way to introduce a better advert balance could be to help the often small-scale producers of these foods to pool resources.
She added: “Obviously, it's up to each of us to decide what we eat but if we're constantly bombarded with images of unhealthy food every time we pick up a magazine then we're going to be swayed in what we choose.”
European Journal of Public Health.
“Socio-economic and gender differences in nutritional content of foods advertised in popular UK weekly magazines”