Parents duped by sports star endorsement of junk food

15 Feb 2011

Study strengthens case for traffic light labelling

Endorsements by well-known sports personalities and selective nutrition claims on food packaging influence parents to buy unhealthy food for their children, according to Cancer Council Victoria’s new study.

The study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, asked parents to choose between an unhealthy food product and a comparable, healthier alternative, based on the packaging. Parents were given the option of reading the nutrition information panel (NIP) yet less than half (44%) chose to do so.

When presented with two options, those who didn’t read the NIP were almost two and a half times twice as likely to choose the unhealthy product when endorsed by a sports celebrity, and almost twice as likely to do so if packaging featured a prominent nutrient claim, i.e. source of fibre.

Jane Martin, senior policy adviser for the Obesity Policy Coalition said the study strengthened the case for traffic light labelling, as recommended by the recent food labelling review, to help parents make informed and healthier food choices at a glance.

“There is strong evidence that marketing influences children’s food choices but historically there is little published data on the effect marketing to parents has on their perception and purchases. This study shows sports star endorsement and selective nutrient claims are powerful devices that can mislead parents about the healthiness of products.”

“When buying food for their children, parents are influenced by their perception of how healthy a product is. We’ve shown that this is affected by promotions highlighting positive elements of food and recommendations by athletes,” said lead author of the study, Dr Helen Dixon of Cancer Council Victoria’s Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer.

Ms Martin said it was unrealistic to expect parents to always read and compare the NIP.

“If Australia is serious about combating our childhood obesity epidemic, there needs to be greater regulation of nutrient claims made by food manufacturers. The Obesity Policy Coalition strongly supports the food labelling review’s recommendation that companies should not be able to use such claims on unhealthy products.

“The study revealed that without clear nutrition information, parents are also significantly more likely to be swayed by sports star endorsement. We would like to see this powerful promotional technique used on unhealthy foods stopped.”

About the Obesity Policy Coalition

The Obesity Policy Coalition is a group of leading public health agencies who are concerned about the escalating levels of overweight and obesity, particularly in children.

The Obesity Policy Coalition partners include Diabetes Australia - Vic, Cancer Council Victoria, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University.

The Obesity Policy Coalition supports such policies as:
  • Restrictions on junk food marketing
  • Improved labelling on packaged food, including traffic light labelling
  • Tax and pricing strategies to support healthy eating

Contact: Rebecca Cook 0438 316 435 / 9635 5207