Research carried out by the University of Hamburg has uncovered findings that identified over 60% of all websites for food contained elements designed to encourage children to consume foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS).
Of particular concern were the number of food companies, who were engaging in online marketing practices aimed at children after voluntarily committing themselves previously to an industry code of conduct.
The study believed that the commitment made by these companies held no water in the online arena, with the researchers questioning their motivation as attracting younger consumers through marketing. They declined to highlight any examples.
"In order to deal with this problem, we need a ban on children's food, especially in the online area and TV," said department head for prevention at the AOK Federal Association, Dr Kai Kolpatzik.
“The goal of the manufacturers is an active engagement with the content,” he continued. “Here, learning processes promote that.”
“Children learn quickly and permanently. Eating habits are shaped during childhood and adolescence and have influence in adulthood. This makes the development of children marketing of particular concern.
Figures provided by the research place Germany’s sugar consumption per person at 32 kilograms (kg) a year, or around 90 grams per day.
The figures exceed those recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) which state sugar intake should not exceed 10% of an individual’s daily total energy supply. This equates to around 50 g of sugar for adults and for children no more than about 25 g per day.
Dr Kolpatzik said that in most cases, these products, high in sugar, salt or fat, greatly increased the risk of childhood obesity.
The rise of social media
Much of the study’s disapproval was reserved for food companies’ use of social media. Here, it found children came into contact with online advertising that used celebrities, comics and on-line games a total of between eight and 22 times.
"Especially in the field of social media, the lure of confectionery manufacturers and similar suppliers has increased significantly," warned Dr. Tobias Effertz, director of studies and lecturer at the University of Hamburg.
"Children are becoming more exposed to advertising for unhealthy foods without their parents being able to effectively protect them."
According to Dr Effertz, the “liking” and sharing ensured that children were more interactive with this type of media compared to something like TV advertising. He believed that companies benefited from a particularly strong multiplier effect.
"The direct recommendation and passing on of online content by friends usually produces a particularly high credibility," he explained.
Dr Effertz’s comments broadly echo those found in recently-published guidelines produced by the WHO, which outlined new Europe-wide investigations into junk food ads aimed at children.
Released at the end of March, the guidelines include a new protocol that advises member states on how to collect data on food marketing to children, in view of stricter and more coordinated measures against junk foods. The protocol marks the next step in action against advertising of HFSS foods.
The hope is that by creating a unified research tool for governments and stakeholders, the root into exactly where and in what fashion HFSS foods are being marketed to children can be identified and addressed.
Responding to the research finding's consumer organisation foodwatch identified Nestlé, Ferrero, and others as firms that would not stop volunteering 'sugar bombs' to children and shape their taste early.
“With unhealthy food, the producers make the biggest profits. Instead of opting for voluntary agreements with the industry, Federal Food Minister Christian Schmidt must finally contain junk food advertising to children by law,” said foodwatch’s acting head of campaigns and research Oliver Huizinga.
“As early as 2015, the World Health Organization has submitted a concrete nutrition model, according to which only balanced food should be advertised to children. The Federal Government must finally implement this model."
“A ban on advertising alone is not enough, to reduce obesity in children” added Dr Kolpatzik.
“Health literacy of parents and children be strengthened. Labelling of foods, for example, by the use of traffic light colours, has already been called for by the AOK some time ago at the EU level.”
AOK’s project report on children's marketing for food on the Internet can be found here (German only).