SA has an obesity crisis, regulation needed to protect children from risks of food marketing – experts
It’s estimated that if obesity among South African children continues to increase at the current rate, 3.91 million schoolchildren will be overweight or obese by 2025. In a dialogue on Monday, activists, academics and policymakers called for decisive action from the government, the private sector and parents.
Almost every parent or guardian who has gone into a grocery shop with a child younger than six or seven has found themselves negotiating out of buying a chocolate, fizzy drink, or colourful box of cereal that is not on the grocery list.
The placement of these products is always strategic and your child is just asking for a product they may associate with a fun jingle, a cartoon character seen on television, or a painting at their local daycare. None of this is coincidental and one ultra-processed product is harmless, but over time the effects can be dire.
Individual health ebbs and flows as life events affect it, but a number of studies and research show that poor nutrition in the formative years has a long-range negative influence on adult health outcomes as there is a correlation between poor nutrition and self-reported health status and chronic diseases.
During a dialogue on Monday, 16 October, Dr Aisosa Jennifer Omoruyi of the Dullah Omar Institute said South Africa has an obesity crisis.
“We can see in the World Obesity Atlas it’s been predicted that over 40% of children between the ages five and 18 will be obese by 2030 if important measures are not taken to address nutrition in South Africa.
“Children are a lucrative consumer group and are being heavily targeted by the food industry. They are not only consumers but have an influence on the buying patterns in the home. They are also future buyers, that’s why marketers want to create brand loyalty and strong emotional connection. They are also targeted because they are highly vulnerable to the persuasive strategies of marketing. Research has shown that they are more susceptible than adults and cannot think about the nutritional value of the product.”
The Dullah Omar Institute and the Centre for Food and Adequate Living Rights hosted the webinar to mark World Food Day on Monday. The dialogue was about the “regulation of unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children in Africa”.
Maverick Citizen has reported on the methods the food industry uses to market directly to children and the harmful effects on health.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Activists call for more restrictions on marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children
Omoruyi explained some of the reasoning behind targeting children:
“Marketing of unhealthy and ultra-processed foods directed at children is very colourful, on television, catchy songs, but now there is also online marketing which is harder to track. Food is presented with children in them, food is shown as an escape, fantasy, adventure and fun, which sends a message to the child that food is good when it might in fact be harmful to the child’s health.
“The use of cartoon characters and certain colours to the brand – children develop a blind loyalty. Also, the marketing can be seen by placement of these products in grocery shops. They are placed on low shelves that are eye level for children and usually right at the till where the parents might give in to a child.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Taking a spoon to a knife fight – is South Africa ready for rising obesity rates?
Omoruyi continued: “We don’t have a restriction on marketing to children in South Africa, but we do have the right to nutrition and this means that children have the right to nutritious and adequate food in section 28 of the Constitution.
“There is the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act: Regulations which speaks against false advertising which can be done in the industry where maybe a product is advertised as nutritious with a few vitamins. Meanwhile, it is high in sugar, sodium or fatty acids which lead to obesity and low productivity for children.”
Exposing children to unhealthy food
The interest in food and beverage marketing to children over time is due to concerns about the increase in childhood overweight and obesity, which can predispose them to developing various noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). It’s estimated that if obesity in South African children continues to increase at the current rate, 3.91 million schoolchildren will be overweight or obese by 2025.
Studies have shown that unhealthy food and beverage marketing directed at children creates a preference for such foods, discourages healthy eating and influences family food purchases and consumption. Children are exposed to unhealthy food and beverage marketing through advertisements on various media channels, on food packaging and even in the school environment.
During Monday’s webinar, advocate Jonathan Lubega moderated the discussion on food industry methods and attempts at regulating marketing to children. He was joined by Robert Doya Nanima from the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Dr Bright Nkrumah from Florida Gulf Coast University, and Martha Ogutu from the Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV and Aids (Kelin).
One attendee, Bulelani Mqolweni, said during the webinar: “I know this is focusing on marketing, but in some spatial contexts marketing may not necessarily be an issue but ease of access to unhealthy foods. In South African townships, for instance, almost every few metres there’s a spaza shop.
“Some of the unhealthy foods sold in these shops are not only unhealthy due to their contents, e.g. sugary, but they are stale and are counterfeits. And seeing children lined up in a spaza shop indulging in these can be extremely disheartening,” said Mqolweni.
South African regulations
In February 2023, the South African government gazetted changes for food labels in South Africa – including for certain products to feature sugar warnings.
Civil society organisations have been encouraging the public to comment on the 238-page document that will make wide-ranging changes to the way food items are labelled on shop shelves.
The proposed changes, called the Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs, reinforce many rules already in place for product packaging in South Africa, such as ingredient lists and sell-by dates, but also introduce a host of changes for more modern changes in food advertising. This includes getting rid of trendy descriptions for food such as calling products “smart” food, or “intelligent” food, which can be misleading advertising.
The draft regulations are in line with World Health Organization recommendations for a healthy diet, which include limiting saturated fat consumption, daily salt intake and intake of free or added sugars. Overconsumption of saturated fats, salt and sugar can lead to people being overweight or obese, and can cause a range of diet-related noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.
The webinar also heard that Kenya is in the initial stages of developing marketing restriction regulations. Its health ministry plans to first evaluate the need for such regulations before drafting them.
There will be an amalgamation of extensive laws, policies and best practice in the process. The process is expected to start by the end of this year.
Kelin has published a policy brief on “Marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children in Kenya”.
Ogutu, who played an instrumental role in creating the brief at Kelin, says that in Kenya, noncommunicable diseases represent an increasingly significant burden of ill health and death. They account for more than 50% of total hospital admissions and more than 55% of hospital deaths.
“Approximately 7% of Kenyans die from cancer; and 37,000 new cases are diagnosed every year; 22.6% of adults aged 18 to 69 years have raised blood pressure or are currently on medication for raised blood pressure; while 2.3% have elevated levels of fasting blood glucose,” she said.
“Unhealthy diet is one of the major risk factors for a range of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and other conditions linked to obesity. The World Health Organization notes that governments have a central role in creating a healthy food environment that enables people to adopt and maintain healthy dietary practices.”
The proposed actions outlined in Kelin’s policy brief to create a healthy food environment include:
- Creating coherence in national policies and investment plans – including trade, food and agricultural policies – to promote a healthy diet and protect public health (through, for instance, exploring regulatory and voluntary instruments such as marketing regulations and nutrition labelling policies), and economic incentives or disincentives like taxation and subsidies) to promote a healthy diet; and
- Encouraging consumer demand for healthy foods and meals through supporting point-of-sale information, including through nutrition labelling that ensures accurate, standardised and comprehensible information on nutrient contents in foods; and promoting appropriate infant and young-child feeding practices.
World Food Day, on 16 October, commemorates the establishment of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This year’s theme is “Water is Food, Water is Life: Leave No One Behind”. DM