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Bright, colourful packaging may entice children to unhealthy foods, report finds

Food companies have been accused of using bright colours and cartoon characters in an ‘unethical’ effort to manipulate children into wanting junk food, in a report by campaign group Bite Back. Bite Back, a charity and campaigning organisation led by UK chef Jamie Oliver, asked nutrition experts to analyse 262 sweet food products sold in the UK and made by the ten biggest food companies, with packaging likely to appeal to children.

The group has accused food manufacturers of deliberately using packaging designed to appeal to young minds in order to sell more junk food. The research, led by Action on Salt, a group of food experts based at Queen Mary University of London, found that 78% of products studied were deemed unhealthy because of their fat, salt or sugar content, 67% of those featuring a character were unhealthy and 80% of products used bright colours as well as fun patterns and lettering to attract children’s attention. Bite Back found that businesses use child-appealing packaging to push unhealthy products to children, including brands like Kinder Surprise, M&Ms, Randoms and Monster Munch Giants – all of which promote colourful, child-appealing wrappers on products that are high in salt, sugar and fat. Bite Back’s research found that: “For seven of the ten businesses investigated, analysis conducted by the University of Oxford indicates that in 2022, more than two-thirds of their packaged food and drink sales came from products that are classed as high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) and therefore unhealthy”. It continued: “Two businesses take nearly ALL their food and drink sales from unhealthy food and drinks. Just two businesses in the top 10 take less than a third of their sales from unhealthy products. And the top five categories of food and drink products by sales value are chocolate, savoury snacks, reduced sugar soft drinks, regular soft drinks and ice cream – none of which are reflected in the Eatwell Guide.” Jamie Oliver told The Guardian: “Whether it’s through fun characters, bright images or exciting new shapes, these switched-on companies are choosing them because they know they will capture young minds. This trick … is yet another way companies are bombarding kids with unhealthy junk food.” A House of Lords inquiry into ultra-processed food, diet and obesity found that all 58 child-appealing products made by Mondelēz were unhealthy, all 22 made by Ferrero contained large amounts of fat, salt or sugar too, and that Mars, PepsiCo and Kellogg’s sell dozens of products with child-appealing packaging that are unhealthy. However, none of Danone’s products that appeal to children were deemed unhealthy. Chief executive of Bite Back, James Toop, suggested that ministers introduce new regulations to restrict these “sinister tactics” by junk food giants, as we are “sleepwalking into a preventable health crisis”. Companies like Mondelēz have denied that their marketing targets children, arguing that their products are intended for adults and parents, disagreeing with the notion that colourful packaging automatically appeals to children. Advisors have advocated for stricter regulations on food packaging and advertising to address childhood obesity, proposing a 9pm watershed on advertising unhealthy products.

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