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Supermarket Marketing Tactics Targeting Toddlers

Babies and toddlers are being bombarded with aggressive supermarket aisle marketing for processed food products and experts are calling for more regulations to protect them in Australia.

Infant and toddler food packaging is saturated with colorful images and logos, popular children’s characters, and deceptive health and nutrition claims, Monash University research found.

Dietician Alexandra Chung says the food industry is deliberately using pervasive child-appealing images to attract the attention of infants and toddlers and their carer, by making their products seem fun and desirable.

“Unfortunately, many of these products are highly processed and are not recommended by health and nutrition experts,” she said.

Of the 230 products analyzed in two major supermarket chains, 90 percent displayed techniques specifically designed to target young children.

More than a third of all packages included images of a baby or child on the front and one in six included recognizable branded characters.

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Over 50 percent of all the products reviewed used child-appealing visuals, such as bright colors and graphics.

Ms. Chung said parents were also being targeted with the use of on-pack messaging that is often not truthful, undermining their intentions to choose healthy options for their children.

She said 96 percent of products used an image of healthy food on the front of their packs even though in some cases it only made up a small proportion of the product.

A further 58 percent made claims about nutritional content and 52 percent of product packs said the product was organic, while 51 percent used claims relating to the product being natural.

“Toddlers and babies are being marketed to by the baby food industry, and when the children reach for these products parents feel reassured from bogus health claims that it’s a good choice to go in their shopping trolley,” Ms. Chung said.

“The reality is that most of these commercially produced products contain too much sugar and are not nutritionally adequate.”

Ms. Chung said the findings also raise concerns about the sheer amount of snack and sugary foods targeted at children aged six months to three years in supermarkets.

Half of the toddler foods found in the supermarkets were snack foods and 20 percent would be classified as confectionery based on the sugar content, including items such as fruit bars and yogurt buttons.

More than 80 percent of all baby and toddler products highlighted their convenient packaging. These included squeezable pouches, single servings or individually wrapped servings.

“There is a lot of marketing messaging around convenient products that can be offered on-the-go, and this distracts from the importance of designated mealtimes consumed at the dinner table with the family,” Ms. Chung said.

Researchers found marketing claims about product taste and texture and their benefits for encouraging self-feeding were in direct contrast to expert concerns about feeding difficulties and delayed development of eating skills associated with pureed foods and squeeze pouches.

“Reliance on squeeze pouches can interfere with children’s oral-motor development and result in delayed introduction of age-appropriate complementary foods,” she said.

The typically sweet flavor of infant and toddler foods sold in pouches can also encourage a preference for sweet foods, leading to longer-term dental and health problems associated with diets high in sugar.

Public Health Association of Australia Vice President Kathryn Backholer said tighter food labeling and promotional technique regulations were needed “to protect our youngest children’s diets from industry influence”.

“It’s not fair to leave it up to parents to navigate sneaky marketing and check ingredient lists and nutrition panels for accurate information or to have to battle pester power,” she said.

“We can’t rely on big food companies spruiking products to babies and toddlers to do the right thing … the government needs to step in and stop relying on industry self-regulation.”

Strict regulations and marketing legislation are in place for infant formula and claims relating to the presence of specific vitamins and minerals are regulated by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.

Marketing strategies related to convenience and taste, particular ingredients, such as preservative-free, and the use of terms such as “goodness” or “natural” are unregulated and used at the discretion of manufacturers.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council declined to comment.

The study was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

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