On average, Australian school-aged children eat more than one-third of their daily energy intake during school hours. What’s in the school lunch box is therefore important. However, over 40% of energy consumed during school hours is from “discretionary” foods and drinks, which according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, should only be consumed sometimes and insmall amounts.
Study finds 80% of lunch box snacks are unhealthy
A recent study investigated 135 snacks marketed as lunch box ideas by major supermarket websites and found almost 40% featured child-directed marketing. The types of child-directed marketing included cartoon characters and other child-friendly images, fonts and references to fun. Seventy-nine percent of products had a Health Star Rating of 3 or less. Furthermore, the snacks with child-directed marketing were less healthy than the overall product range.
One example of a product investigated was a packaged snack containing processed meat and chocolate chip cookies; these foods are not healthy choices because they are high in saturated fat, salt and sugar. Eating these snacks regularly can lead to poor eating habits that children may take into adulthood. The package has images of cartoon characters from a popular children’s television series, aimed at children under 7 years old. Food marketers target children in this way to take advantage of “pester power”, so that children influence their parent’s buying habits through persistent requests.
So what does this mean?
Australia currently has no specific government regulation of unhealthy food marketing to children, and instead relies on ineffective industry codes and the codes do not apply to packaging. Overseas, Chile introduced a policy in 2016 to restrict child-directed marketing, such as cartoon characters, on unhealthy foods and drinks. Early results show this policy is reducing children’s exposure to junk food ads. Children are vulnerable to unhealthy food marketing and should be protected against its effects.
The National Obesity Strategy 2022-32 provides an opportunity for governments to help improve dietary habits by making it easier for everyone to eat healthier foods. That includes showing children what a healthy diet looks like and not bombarding them with unhealthy food advertising or confusing them with tempting images on unhealthy snacks.
Watson W L, Torkel S, Kat M, Hughes C. 2023. How healthy are Australian lunch box snacks with child-directed marketing? Health Promotion Journal of Australia.