The Junk-Food Trap: An International Epidemic

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I steadfastly write about one of my major pet peeves: marketing junk food to children who are extraordinarily susceptible to the health-hazardous messages companies download into their brains.


It’s not a purely American phenomenon. A new investigation by Consumers International (CI), a global federation of consumer organizations, reveals the extensive lengths to which food and soft-drink companies go when marketing unhealthy products to children in Asia Pacific. The report shows how major international brands like Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, KFC, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Nestle are using a variety of persuasive techniques to influence preteen and teenage consumers’ food preferences.

From highly sophisticated Internet promotions to endorsements by celebrities and cartoon characters, companies create intricate brand associations with popular children’s pastimes. CI asserts such marketing is trapping children into a steady diet of foods high in fat, sugar and salt, thereby contributing to soaring childhood overweight and obesity rates in the region.

In Southeast Asia alone, the percentage of clinically overweight children is expected to rise by 27.5% between 2005 and 2010, according to the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity—a rate that exceeds any other geographic region’s numbers.

The scale and reach of junk-food marketing is astonishing, CI experts note. In Malaysia, for instance, KFC’s Chicky Club, a promotional tool for the chain’s children’s menu, now boasts the largest kids’ club membership in the country, at 58,000+ strong.

Equally shocking are the levels of unhealthy ingredients in popular regional brand-name products. For example, the study found Kellogg’s Frosties contains up to 41 g sugar per 100 g (15 g is considered high by UK Food Standards), and a Nestle’s Milo Energy Bar contains more than 25 g saturated fat per 100 g (5 g is considered high).

Response from governments and companies in the region falls far short of what’s needed, including a complete absence of nutritional labels on packages in India and near-nonexistent laws in Nepal.

CI argues companies are taking advantage of poor national regulations to promote unhealthy foods in ways they have pledged to end in wealthier countries, and it’s calling for an international code to restrict marketing of unhealthy food to children. The organization’s official code calls for: 

  • A ban on radio and TV ads that promote unhealthy food to children ages 6 to 21
  • No marketing of unhealthy food using new media (websites, social-networking sites, text-messaging)
  • No promotion of unhealthy food in schools
  • No inclusion of free gifts, toys or collectible items in packages of unhealthy food
  • No use of celebrities, cartoon characters, competitions or free gifts to market unhealthy food

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