Obesity campaigners demand ban of cartoon characters on food and drink packets

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

©Getty Images/Matthew Horwood
©Getty Images/Matthew Horwood

Related tags Obesity Labelling Packaging

Campaigners in the UK are calling for a government ban on cartoon animations on packets that market unhealthy products to children and compulsory ‘traffic light’ nutrition labelling after a survey discovered that half of over 500 food and drink products which use cartoon animations on pack are high in fat, saturated fat, sugar and/or salt.

Research by Action on Sugar and Action on Salt in association with Children’s Food Campaign claimed that 51% of 526 food and drink products which use cartoon animations on the packaging to appeal to children were “unnecessarily​” high in fat, saturated fat, sugar and/or salt (HFSS).

Half of all products were so unhealthy they could not be advertised on TV during children's’ programmes or on Transport for London, said the groups.

Some products that used popular TV and film characters on their packets, such as Peppa Pig Candy Bites, contained as much as 99% sugar, the campaigners noted.

Food producers accused of ‘deliberate manipulation’

They claimed that manufacturers and retailers were “deliberately manipulating children and parents into purchasing ‘dangerously’ unhealthy products, which can encourage pester power and excessive consumption​”.

According to the campaigners, a complete ban of such marketing tactics on unhealthy products and compulsory ‘traffic light’ nutrition labelling would give “parents the chance to make healthier choices”.

Marketing on children’s packaging, they stated, should follow the same advertising codes as set by the Committee for Advertising Practices for broadcast advertising. These state that HFSS product advertisements “must not be directed at under-16’sthrough the selection of media or the context in which they appear and no medium with an audience that consists of more than 25% of under-16s should be used to advertise HFSS products.”

Half of the current marketing on children’s packaging would fail that eligibility criteria, said the campaigners. They the criteria to extend to any programme watched by a child, as is currently being discussed in the Governments’ latest consultation on further advertising restrictions for HFSS products.

Not Pepper Pig’s best day ever

Products displaying Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig were the worst offenders, according to the study. More than half (57%) of the items with Paw Patrol on the packaging were high in in fat, salt and/or sugar. Half of the products showing Pepper Pig were high in in fat, salt and/or sugar.

Kinnerton Paw Patrol 6 Mini Chocolate Bars contained over 60% sugar and 17% saturated fat (7.2g sugar and 2.1g saturated fat/serving). Just one 12g chocolate bar would provide a 4-6 year old with over a third (38%) of their maximum daily recommended intake for sugars, suggested the groups.

Eating four Paw Patrol Milk Chocolate Coins with would provide a 4-6 year old with 12g sugar, nearly two thirds of their maximum daily recommended intake, they added.

Other food companies were criticised for using licensed characters on packets alongside health claims such as ‘1 of your 5 a day’ and added vitamin D, while failing to display red nutrition warning labels per 100g. For example, Heinz used an array of licensed characters, from Disney’s Frozen to Peppa Pig, but a can of its pasta shapes with tomato sauce would provide a child with 0.8g salt per can, which is 40% of the maximum recommended intake for a 1-3 year old.

In comparison, Asda’s Spaghetti Loops in Tomato Sauce contained a third less, at 0.52g salt per can.

  • Dr. Moo Quick Milk Magic Sipper Strawberry ​was packed with the most sugar – a 94.0g/100g – that is over 23 tsp of sugar (5.6g/straw).
  • Morrisons Dolly Mixtures,​ with an animated mouse character, contained 86.6g sugar per 100g, or 21.7g for a third of a bag - over five teaspoons worth of sugar. This would be more than the maximum recommended intake of sugars for a 4-6 year old.
  • Aldi’s The Juice Company Kids Smoothie Orange, Pineapple & Mango​ with images of animated fruit contained the most sugar per suggested serving, with 27g sugar in 200ml; equivalent to seven teaspoons. This would be more than the maximum recommended intake for children under 10 years.
  • Peperami Tex-Mex Snack Pack​ with an image of Peperami’s Animal mascot wearing a Mexican sombrero at 4.30g/100g – 0.22g per piece, or 2.15g per bag. That’s more than a third of an adult’s maximum recommended daily intake of salt, and half a bag would provide a 1-3 year old with over 50% their maximum daily intake (2g/day).
  • Cheetos Cheese,​ with an image of their Cheetah mascot, scores not much better at 3.20g of salt/100g (0.96g/30g portion).
  • Fray Bento’s Meatballs in Bolognese sauce​ with an image of an alien provides 2.40g salt per portion (1.3g/100g), which is more than the maximum daily recommended intake for a 1-3 year old (2g/day).

Reformulation is possible’

Examples of high and healthier alternatives with packaging appealing to children (Source: Action on Sugar)
Examples of high and healthier alternatives with packaging appealing to children (Source: Action on Sugar)

Some companies were using licensed characters “responsibly” to promote water, fruit or vegetables, and the research also discovered comparatively healthy alternatives. This demonstrates that reformulation was possible, said the campaigners.

They identified 18 healthy food and drink products (such as fruit, vegetables and water) that used on-pack child friendly animations. Lidl came out as the best retailer in that respect with its Oaklands range of fruit and vegetables.

The activists lauded the tools available to help people make a healthier choice such as FoodSwitch, the free smartphone app, which allows customers to scan the barcode of a product and see healthier alternatives.

Preventing pester power

Registered Nutritionist Dr Kawther Hashem, Campaign Lead at Action on Sugar based at Queen Mary University of London, told FoodNavigator that companies should focus on making products not high in fat, salt and sugar of appeal to children. 

"Almost 50% of the products surveyed won’t be categorised as high in fat, salt and sugar. These are the products that can be used as alternatives to entice children to opt for healthier products. Ideally, we want to see cartoons characters only featured on the foods that children are reluctant to eat such as fruit and vegetables and also dried fruit which will hopefully encourage more consumption."

‘The food industry has a moral duty act’

Sonia Pombo, Campaign Lead at Action on Salt based at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Parents want to make healthy choices for their children, but companies are not making this easy for them. The food industry has a moral duty to stop putting profits first and sell their products responsibly. There is plenty of opportunity for companies to either reformulate and make their products healthier, or make their already healthier products more appealing to children. Until then, the government must intervene and ensure all food and drink manufacturers at least display ‘traffic light’ labelling so parents can see, at a glance, what is in the food.”

Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt added: “Many of the food products exposed in our survey present a serious risk to the future health and wellbeing of children. High sugar products increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, various cancers and tooth decay and high salt products put up blood pressure, which leads to cardiovascular disease later in life. The government needs to restrict the use of such packaging on unhealthy products including marketing them to children.”

Their cause was taken up by the Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. He said said: “This research reveals the scale of irresponsibility in the industry. We’re in the midst of a child obesity crisis and companies are using cartoons to advertise their junk foods to kids. It’s unacceptable. It’s time we changed the rules to get these cartoons off our packs.”

‘Headline-chasing measures won’t help’  

But the Food and Drink Federation hit back, claiming that the campaigners’ ‘headline-seeking measures’ ​would not help address the UK’s obesity crisis.

"Obesity poses a huge public health challenge in the UK, and food and drink companies are well aware of their role in addressing it. For the last decade companies have been voluntarily reformulating their products to reduce sugar, calories, fat and salt, as well as limiting portion sizes. The rules on advertising to children have been voluntarily tightened and extended; and many new healthier options have been developed,”​ said FDF Chief Operating Officer Tim Rycroft.

“Food and drink companies have a legal obligation to tell their customers what is in their food. Ingredients lists and nutrition information are both clearly provided on pack. Many go much further by voluntarily providing a simplified version of the nutrition information on the front of pack - often with red, amber and green colour coding. This means consumers can easily check, compare and choose foods.

“We agree more needs to be done to tackle obesity. However, these kinds of calls for headline-chasing measures are the wrong response. Instead, money should be put behind specific, targeted measures for those people and areas most affected by obesity.”

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1 comment

Of Course It Will Not Work

Posted by Dave,

Taking cartoons off of cereal boxes will have the same effect as when the photos of derelicts were taken off of liquor bottles to eliminate alcoholism.

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