The health of a new generation is being jeopardised by companies using the internet to get around a ban on junk food being advertised on children's television, according to a report released today.
Manufacturers of products that are too high in salt, sugar or fat to be advertised on TV are instead targeting children through websites, claim the British Heart Foundation and the Children's Food Campaign.
"Our children's health is at risk. Parents' efforts to help their children eat healthily are being undermined by promotions which are exploiting loopholes in the advertising regulations," the report warns.
New figures released by the NHS last Thursday showed that one in three children are overweight or obese by the time they reach 11.
Brands such as Cadbury Buttons, Capri-Sun, Cheestrings, Chupa Chups and Sugar Puffs are among those cited in the report. All are products that are so high in fat, salt or sugar that they fail the Food Standards Agency (FSA) nutrient profiling test and so cannot be advertised on children's TV. Yet differences in regulations allow them to market their products via the internet, the report says.
The tactics of some companies include online adverts, social networking site links, cartoon characters, and games and apps, as well as free gifts or prizes to appeal to young people.
The report, based on an audit of 100 websites, showed that more than 80 per cent were associated with products classed as "less healthy" by the FSA. Only nine contained any age verification, and those were easily bypassed by entering a false date of birth.
Mubeen Bhutta, the BHF's policy manager, said: "Like wolves in sheep's clothing, junk food manufacturers are preying on children. Regulation protects children from these cynical tactics while watching TV but there is no protection when they're online."
Campaigners are calling on the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to introduce consistent advertising rules across all media. But a spokesman for his department said responsibility rests with the independent Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA is responsible for ensuring "children are suitably protected from harmful or inappropriate advertising", he added.
In a statement, the ASA described Britain's rules on advertising to children as "among the strictest in the world" but added: "If evidence came to light indicating the need to take further steps, we'd take that into account."
Of the companies named in the report, those that responded to calls from The Independent on Sunday claimed to be responsible companies operating in line with relevant regulations. Just one showed any indication of changing its ways. A spokesman for Cadbury Buttons admitted: "We recognised that some of the content did not meet the rigorous Kraft Foods marketing policy and always intended to close this site at the end of this year."
Case study: Natalie Rogers, 34
Mother of eight-year-old twins Minnie and Maisy. From Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire
"They eat some of the things in the report at least twice during the week, especially things like Cheestrings, Nesquik and Capri-Sun. You're getting it from all angles because even though junk food is not advertised on children's television programmes, the girls can access information on the internet. It's very hard, being a working mum, to know exactly what they are doing at times. It would be fairer if parents fully understood, which I didn't actually know, that there are not the same regulations on internet advertising as there are for television advertising."