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Fast-food advertising targeting children puts their health and futures at risk, say experts

From left: Desiree Lewis, Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape; Adèle Sulcas, health, food systems and policy writer; Zukiswa Pikoli, Maverick Citizen journalist.

Consumption of fast foods and ultra-processed foods by children can place them at risk of serious health problems later in life, including obesity and diabetes. Despite this, fast-food advertising continues to target young people, and by extension, parents and caregivers. Not only does South Africa need better regulations around food advertising and content, but also strategies to increase access to and demand for healthier foods.

Children are blatantly and specifically targeted by advertising for the fast-food industry. While they do not have the money and independence to attain these foods themselves, they can influence adult parents and caregivers in their lives – a power that many large food corporations have come to recognise.

Fast-food corporations invest considerable resources in persuading children that their products are desirable, even employing specialists on how children think to ensure the food is marketable and enticing, according to Professor Desiree Lewis of the Women and Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape. Lewis was speaking at a Daily Maverick webinar on food justice, titled “(Un)happy meals: The detrimental effects of food advertising on children”.

The webinar was hosted by Maverick Citizen journalist Zukiswa Pikoli. Joining Lewis as a speaker was health, food systems and policy writer Adèle Sulcas.

“The problem that arises from the industry targeting children is that parents who are often short on money, time, the ability to make an effort, somehow, to make sure that their children are eating healthily – including at school – are as susceptible perhaps as children are to the effects of advertising and marketing of unhealthy food,” said Sulcas.

Professor Desiree Lewis from the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape, and health, food systems and policy writer Adèle Sulcas. (Photos: Supplied)

Unhealthy foods tend to be cheaper, more accessible and more easily available than healthier alternatives, as well as tasting good. This contributes to them becoming a “quick-fix” solution to parents who do not have the time and money to invest in healthier options, according to Sulcas.

Fast-food advertising often presents potential consumers with ideal values that reflect our current political, social and economic system, said Lewis. It can encompass aspirations to be powerful and ambitious, to have big houses and cars, or simply to be happy.

“[T]he most, let’s say, pernicious aspect of advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods to children is that very often what they represent, as something to aspire to for a child watching an ad, is actually an association of love and comfort and emotional security,” said Sulcas.

In an environment like South Africa, where many children live in single-parent households or spaces with little material comfort, there is a high degree of susceptibility to these appeals to feelings of love, security and “home”, she continued. Children can become fixated on having a product as a means of accessing these feelings.

“I think that, for me, is an incredibly powerful lever that food producers and multinational food producers use,” said Sulcas. “And it works. The proof is right there, it works because they sell billions, and they keep on ploughing billions back into their advertising and marketing.”

Health impacts

The marketing of fast foods and ultra-processed foods to children is problematic because of the harm that these foods do to their bodies, and the resultant implications for their health in later life, according to Sulcas.

South Africa already has an enormous problem with obesity. One in five children under the age of 13 are overweight or obese – that’s double the global average. One in eight adults, meanwhile, are diabetic, meaning about 4.5 million adult South Africans suffer from this condition.

Obesity, which is often associated with overeating highly and ultra-processed foods, predisposes people to pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes, said Sulcas.

“So, you have a situation where those children who are overweight and obese already are likely to turn into that cohort of millions of adults who, 20, 30 years down the line, are going to suddenly get hit with the impact of what they have been eating and drinking in childhood, without necessarily knowing as children that what they are consuming is harmful for them.”

This not only results in a human tragedy of people suffering and dying from preventable conditions, but also a financial cost to a health system that is already underfunded and underresourced, explained Sulcas. Recent studies have shown that the cost of the diagnosed cases of diabetes in South Africa comes to about R3-billion per year.

Regulations and solutions

South Africa has very little food-related regulation. One set of regulations is R146, created in 2010, which requires foods to have the ingredients and the physical location where the item was produced on the label. However, this requirement is poorly monitored and enforced, according to Sulcas.

Fast-food advertising targeting children puts their health and futures at risk. (Photo: thesun.co.uk / Wikipedia)

“We have been waiting since 2010, effectively, for new legislation in this country that would restrict advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods, or possibly all foods, to children, as many other countries have done,” she said. “We have been waiting for legislation to improve the labelling situation, so that consumers can trust what is on the labels of their food, and we have been waiting for – more broadly – a regulatory environment that supports business… to make better decisions about what they put in their foods.”

One example of where South African policy has positively affected the content of foods is the Health Promotion Levy, or “sugar tax”, said Sulcas. The tax on the amount of sugar in sugar-sweetened beverages, while not very big, has resulted in the companies that make the beverages reducing the sugar content.

Better regulations around food marketing and content are an important starting point for limiting the exploitation of markets in developing countries by large food corporations. However, there is also a need to create a consumer demand for healthier eating, she said.

Pikoli emphasised that in many lower-income communities, unhealthy foods are often the only kind people can afford. Even when healthier options are available, they are often too expensive for those living below the breadline.

“There’s an intersectoral approach that’s required in order for us to be able to make these kinds of things accessible,” she said. “A lot of it is linked to the current economy and the impact of Covid, and people not working and the industry taking full advantage of that, you know, in that prices continue to skyrocket, despite people’s declining spending.”

Lewis said that while the matter of access to sufficient food is covered by the Constitution, the country cannot rely on formal mechanisms alone to solve the problem.

“I think that there really needs to be a groundswell of… opinion and passion about issues that really matter, and I think very often there isn’t an understanding that food and food choices really matter,” she said. DM/MC

 

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