Brand loyalty created 'at expense of children's health'

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The Independent Online
Food companies are creating 'brand loyalty' in children at the expense of their health, according to a survey by the Consumers' Association.

Heavily advertised foods, high in sugars and fats, are no longer bought for treats but make up a large proportion of the average child's diet, the latest issue of Which? Way to Health, published today, says. 'These heavily promoted foods are affecting the way children eat,' it adds.

The magazine says research shows that children are brand- conscious by the age of four and can be more influenced by cartoon characters, increasingly used to market convenience foods, than their parents. 'Character licensing' is worth an estimated dollars 100bn ( pounds 69bn) a year world-wide: Nestle's deal with Disney to use Mickey Mouse and other characters was worth pounds 70m.

Companies have also moved into computer games to promote products such as Coca-Cola, Quavers crisps, lollypops and Penguin biscuits.

In the game James Pond 2: Robocod, the main character collects Penguins half the size of the screen. Three-quarters of children aged between 5 and 14 have access to a computer and 18 per cent have played James Pond 2: each game is played for an average 25 hours. 'That's a lot of children seeing a lot of Penguin bars,' the magazine comments.

Another food company tactic is the use of misleading 'educational' materials, which teachers lack the time or expertise to assess, to promote their products.

A 75-page pack produced by the Sugar Bureau and sent free, and unsolicited, to every primary school invited children to add sugar to drinks until they felt 'right'. A guide to health and fitness funded by the British Egg Information Service puts eggs top of the lists of foods for protein, vitamins and minerals, leaves out meat, poultry and fruit but fails to mention the sponsor's name.

A child who watched commercial television for an hour after school and all Saturday morning would see 92 food and drink advertisements, 80 per cent of which were for foods high in sugar and fat, while only 10 per cent could be said to encourage a healthy diet.

Two kinds of child shopper have been identified by marketing specialists as having influence on what goes into their parents' trolley, the survey says. The first is the 'trolley loader', who surreptitiously fills up with unwanted goods: placing products on low- level shelves makes this easier.

The second is the 'nagger' or 'pesterer', who exasperates parents into buying products. About 50 per cent of mothers say their children influence what they buy.

More than half the 140 children's foods launched in 1990 were confectionery, soft drinks and snacks, Which? says. Last year, one in four secondary school children ate more than two packets of crisps a day and nearly half had two or more chocolate bars or sweets. One in four had no fruit or vegetables. Each week the average 11-year-old eats the equivalent of four packets of crisps, six cans of soft drinks, seven bars of chocolate and seven bicuits.

Forty per cent of children's energy intake comes from fat. Chips or sweets make up 20 per cent of their total calories. Children's fat and sugar intakes are above recommended levels and many also lack nutrients such as iron.