Some of the biggest companies in the entertainment industry have been accused of contributing to bad childhood diets by allowing their cartoon characters to be used to sell unhealthy food.
Which? the group formerly known as the Consumers' Association fired the latest salvo in the battle to improve eating habits yesterday when it said that plastering characters fromThe Incredibles, Shark Tale and The Simpsons over tins and packets of unhealthy food aimed at children was irresponsible.
In a trawl of supermarket shelves, researchers found 46 products promoted by cartoon characters owned by 10 different licensing companies, including Disney, Dreamworks and Warner Brothers, exceeded government-recommended levels of salt, sugar and fat.
Researchers found endorsed pasta products and ready meals containing more than the maximum daily amount of salt for children aged one to six. Of the endorsed breakfast cereals, "virtually all" of them contained a lot of sugar.
In response to the survey, Twentieth Century Fox, which licenses The Simpsons, said it was reviewing its policies on product endorsements and would be looking at the areas highlighted.
Warner Brothers, licensee for Scooby Doo, said it worked with "some of the best branded food partners in the world, many of which develop products with significant nutritional value".
In a related Which? survey of 2,000 parents, 77 per cent said that such marketing of children's foods increased the "pester power" and made it difficult for them to refuse their children. Nick Stace, of Which?, said: "Parents feel manipulated. Too many characters loved by children are being used to promote foods high in fat, sugar and salt. These are not treats; these are everyday foods."
Parents interviewed in the survey expressed anger at celebrities who endorsed unhealthy foods aimed at children. One mother, whose name was not given, said that David Beckham should lend his name to promoting apples rather than Pepsi Cola.
Authors of the report praised the BBC for having the most explicit policy. Under rules drawn up by BBC Worldwide, maximum levels of salt, sugar and fat have been set for foods endorsed by BBC characters. Despite this, a yoghurt endorsed by the Tweenies was found by Which? to contain high levels of sugar.
Uniq Prepared Foods, makers of St Ivel yoghurts, said in a statement: "In response to growing concerns about childhood obesity rates, Uniq Prepared Foods has been working in conjunction with BBC Worldwide to reduce levels of sugar in its pre-school range.
"As a result, Uniq will be replacing its current Tweenies wholemilk yoghurt in April with a new product that contains less than 10 grams of sugar per 100 grams, thus leading the way in the children's yoghurts and desserts sector."