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Youth being ‘bombarded’ with unhealthy food ads, study finds

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Companies are bombarding children and teens with advertisements for energy drinks, fast food, sugary snacks and other unhealthy products, which is influencing their choices and setting them up for lifelong bad habits, a report from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada warns.

Voluntary commitments by the food industry to restrict marketing to youth are a "failure" and legislation is needed to curb the number of sophisticated marketing messages targeting young people on TV, online and in grocery stores, says the report, published Wednesday. In fact, those food companies that signed a national pledge not to market unhealthy foods to kids are the heaviest advertisers of products that are high in fat, sugar or sodium to young people online, according to research commissioned for the report.

"The results, they surprise me," said Monique Potvin Kent, who led the research and is assistant professor at the University of Ottawa's School of Epidemiology, Public Health and Preventive Medicine. "How can kids defend themselves against that? They can't."

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The researchers used comScore data to determine the top 10 websites visited by kids and teens over the course of a year and exposure data of advertisements. They determined children viewed 25 million ads for unhealthy foods and beverages. Teens viewed about 2.5 million ads over the same period. The figures are smaller for teens because they visit a much wider array of websites, meaning the top 10 websites among teens have far fewer visitors than the top 10 sites for children. Researchers focused on counting banner and pop-up ads, suggesting the actual number of ads young people are exposed to is much higher, Potvin Kent said.

According to the national pledge, called the Canadian Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CAI), companies only advertise food and beverages to children under 12 if they represent healthier choices. Otherwise, they aren't supposed to directly advertise to that audience. Coca-Cola, Kraft, PepsiCo, Hershey and McDonald's are some of the big name brands that have signed the commitment.

However, Potvin Kent noted several flaws that allow those companies to continue advertising unhealthy products to young audiences. For instance, most of the 18 companies involved only restrict unhealthy food and beverage advertising when the audience is 35 per cent or more children under 12. Potvin Kent said setting the threshold that high means that any program families watch together would likely not meet that target, thus allowing companies to market any products.

In addition, companies set the nutrition criteria for healthier products that are exempt from the advertising restrictions. Chocolate Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, Fruit Roll-Ups and a Happy Meal from McDonald's are among the products deemed "healthier" options that could be advertised to children under 12.

The evidence shows a new law is needed to crack down on the widespread practice of marketing unhealthy food to children, said Sasha McNicoll, Coalition for Healthy School Food co-ordinator at Food Secure Canada, which is involved in a campaign with the Heart and Stroke Foundation to limit marketing to young people.

"If we don't need legislation, why are a third of Canadian children overweight or obese?" she said. "[Voluntary responses] don't work. We need to legislate this in order to see results."

Advertising Standards Canada, which administers CAI, declined to comment. The Association of Canadian Advertisers also declined to comment.

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According to the report, the average child watches two hours of TV each day and sees up to five food and beverage ads an hour.

The federal government has promised to bring in legislation to stop companies from advertising unhealthy food to children. Senator Nancy Greene Raine has tabled a bill that would restrict companies from marketing such products to children 12 and under. The bill has passed first reading in the Senate and Greene Raine said she recently met with Health Minister Jane Philpott and Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly to discuss how the issue can move forward. She said she hopes the bill passes because parents need the help.

"[Children] are getting hooked, if you like, on things that aren't good for them," Greene Raine said. "In today's world, parents are really under siege."

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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