The article is one of a series on obesity in the Lancet, which points out that no country has managed to reverse its obesity rate, although some have managed to slow its increase in certain populations. Led by Tim Lobstein, of the World Obesity Federation, the article’s authors urge governments to call upon the World Health Organization to crack down on marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children.
“The food industry has a special interest in targeting children,” they wrote. “Not only can the companies influence children's immediate dietary preferences, but they also benefit from building taste preferences and brand loyalty early in life, which last into adulthood. Furthermore, the food and beverage industries as a whole have a financial investment in creating overweight.”
Lobstein goes further, saying: “Fat children are an investment in future sales.”
However, the article warns that food companies are likely to resist policies to control the food environment in the same way that the alcohol or tobacco industries resisted sales and marketing restrictions on public health grounds.
It claims that companies have threatened efforts to improve breastfeeding rates as they aim to sell infant formula and weaning foods, especially in low- and middle-income countries. The paper’s authors suggest this pattern is repeated in the feeding of older children “encouraging a transfer from breastmilk to highly processed foods and sweetened beverages, which contain ingredients that condition the taste buds of children to a lifetime of consuming energy-rich and nutrient-poor products”.
Unhealthy children ‘in nobody’s interest’
A spokesperson for trade association FoodDrinkEurope, which represents the interests of European food and drink companies, told FoodNavigator: “We fully support the need to address childhood obesity…. It is nobody's interest to have unhealthy children, and it can certainly not be perceived as an "investment in future sales", as is scandalously claimed by one of the authors!
“It has been widely acknowledged by international reputed organisations that this societal challenge requires the engagement of all actors.”
But according to the paper, few countries have taken steps to protect children from obesity, and many have relied solely on voluntary efforts from the food industry, without evidence that they can halt growing obesity rates.
The FoodDrinkEurope spokesperson added that European food and drink companies produce foods that vary in nutritional composition and portion size, including for foods consumed by children, and companies adhere to responsible marketing codes.
Growing infant food market
According to figures from Canada’s Internal Market Bureau, global markets for processed infant foods are expected to grow rapidly. It predicts that from 2007 to 2015, sales of dried and ready-to-eat commercial complementary foods will rise from $3.2bn to $4.9bn (€2.8bn-€4.3bn) for dried products and from $10.5bn to $14.1bn (€9.3bn-€12.4bn) for ready-to-eat products, and sales in Asian countries are expected to triple in value during the same period.
The article is available online here.