Increased ‘health claims’ on children’s food belies products’ poor nutritional quality, study reveals

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Yaoinlove
Source: Getty/Yaoinlove
The percentage of children’s products making front-of-pack nutritional and ‘better-for-you’ claims has increased significantly in the past decade, as has the use of ‘fun appeals,’ but the nutritional quality has not, according to a recent study that prompted researchers to call for stricter marketing guidelines for children’s products.

Nearly a decade after the World Health Organization developed guidelines restricting products marketed to children based in part of sugar, fat and salt content, a systematic review published Aug. 9 in the journal Nutrients​ found 88% of products marketed to children in 2017 do not meet WHO’s 2010 standards. This is the same percentage as in 2009, according to the study which compared products marketed to children in Canada in 2009 to 2017.

A closer look at the products’ nutritional values show that not only did the percentage of products failing to meet WHO standards fail to improve, but that the amount of sugar actually increased, while fat stayed the same and sodium decreased. 

“By far, the most common nutrient threshold exceeded was sugar, with 72.9 and 77.3% of products having excess sugar in 2009 and 2017, respectively,”​ and 16% of the products qualified as high in fat in each data set, the researchers note.

“Products with excess sodium per serving side dropped over time, and this was statistically significant, with 12.1% of products in 2009 to 5.3% of products in 2017,”​ they added.

The researchers also pointed out that some companies changed products so that they appeared to be more nutritional, but in fact were not. For example, six of the 14 identical products in each data set had smaller serving sizes in 2017 than 2009 but this changes “was always accompanied by an increase in at least one sugar, sodium or fat per 100 g even if the respective nutrient content per serving size did not change or decreased.”

Appealing to parents

While the nutritional quality of the products overall remained the same or were less healthy, changes in the front of pack claims tell a different story.

The study found products with front of pack nutrition claims “increased dramatically” from 31.4% in 2009 to 85.6% in 2017 – likely in an effort to appeal to parents’ desire to offer their children something that they perceive as healthy.

However, many of the added claims did not reflect the actual healthfulness of the products. Rather, both gluten-free and peanut/nut-free claims were four times more common in 2017 than 2009, while claims of no artificial flavors or colors also “jumped significantly”​ from 11.6% to 35.3%.

Alternatively, the study reveals that “source of” claims, such as vitamin D or calcium, and organic claims became less common in 2017. Nutrient content claims remained stable between 1 and 3%, it added.

Other claims that implied a product is healthy but which are not connected to nutritional value, such as “better” and “good,” also increased in 2017. These claims, such as Kellogg’s Simply Good! Claim or Dare’s Made Better! Claim, appeared on more than one of every three products in 2017, the study reports.

[Editor’s note: If you are interested in learning more about trends around what children eat and how products are marketed, join us in November in Chicago for our second Food For Kids Summit​. Find all the details and register HERE​.] 

Appealing to kids

Claims and marketing tactics that likely would attract children also increased significantly from 2009 to 2017, according to the report.

For example, it found “child-appealing fonts increased from 86.4 to 94.7%”​ and cartoon images on the front of the package jumped from 69.2 to 85.6% from 2009 to 2017, the study reported.

Other tactics designed to appeal to children seem to have fallen out of favor, though, according to the study. It found kid-sized packages and the use of games or activities decreased.

Reflecting on the study’s findings, the researchers concluded there is a “critical need to consider the regulation of packaging – both in Canada and internationally – as part of the strategy for creating an ‘enabling food environment’ for children”​ that encourages consumption of healthier products.


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