Mascots like Tony the Tiger are swaying kids to eat junk food, putting health ‘at risk’ – National

Junk food characters like Tony the Tiger, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and the popular Paw Patrol squad, are helping promote unhealthy eating habits in Canadian children, according to new research.

The study, funded by Heart & Stroke and published Tuesday by researchers from the University of Ottawa, found a link between licenced cartoon characters (like Spiderman) and spokes characters (like Lucky the Leprechaun from Lucky Charms) in enticing children to eat junk food.

“Children love marketing techniques specially targeted at them. So the characters like Tony the Tiger and Snap, Crackle and Pop, that really has a big impact on kids,” said Monique Potvin Kent, associate professor in the School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa.

Potvin Kent, who was the lead author of the study, told Global News the researchers found children preferred products that were advertised with those characters and would ask their parents to purchase them.

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“The actual mechanism of why it works, that has not been made clear, except they’re very loveable characters and they’re also familiar characters,” she said.

The cartoon characters, Potvin Kent warned, present threats to children’s health.

Click to play video: 'Is your teen addicted to junk food?'

Is your teen addicted to junk food?

“Children’s health is at risk. There’s an obesity crisis that’s happening, 30 per cent of our children and teen population are either overweight or obese … the majority of their consumption is from ultra-processed foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt,” Potvin Kent said.

“People want children to be healthy. It’s important so that they don’t develop chronic diseases later on.”

The researchers of the study also wanted to find out whether the type of character made a difference in marketing to children.

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To do this, they showed food ads to more than 1,300 Canadian kids, aged nine to 12 during January and February in 2023, and measured their intentions to eat, buy or pester their parents for it. They then analyzed the impact on kids of licenced cartoon characters from popular media and spokes characters developed by food and beverage companies.

“Some kids saw spokes characters like Tony the Tiger, Pillsbury Doughboy and the Kool-Aid guy,” Potvin Kent said. “Whereas other kids saw advertisements for licenced characters … like Spiderman or Paw Patrol. And then some kids saw no characters at all. Other ads were for products that would be more kind of targeted at adults.”

The study found that children exposed to ads featuring spokes characters had a significantly higher average total impact compared to those exposed to licenced characters.

Although not as powerful, licenced characters still had a notable influence on children, surpassing the impact of ads without cartoon characters, the study also found.

Childhood obesity in Canada

Obesity rates among children and youth in the country have nearly tripled in the last 30 years, according to Health Canada.

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According to the Mayo Clinic, the main contributors to childhood obesity are related to lifestyle issues, such as a lack of exercise and regularly eating high-calorie foods. However, genetic and hormonal factors can also play a role.

Obese children are more likely to develop a range of health problems such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and depression.

“There is a childhood obesity crisis in Canada,” Potvin Kent said. “Food and beverage advertising to kids is associated with childhood obesity.”

A 2017 Heart and Stroke Foundation study found that more than 90 per cent of food and beverage product ads viewed by kids and teens online were for unhealthy products.

Potvin Kent said this means that healthy foods are rarely promoted to children, while fast food, candy, chocolate, sugary beverages and cereals dominate the advertising landscape.

Click to play video: 'Junk Food Marketing Ban'

Junk Food Marketing Ban

Eating highly processed foods can contribute to an increase in a child’s lifelong risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and even the formation of some cancers because of the high sugar load, said Dr. Tom Warshawski, a B.C. pediatrician and chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation.

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It also can create lifelong unhealthy eating habits, he added.

“And essentially, we’ve let the food and beverage industry create this environment for our children,” he said. The environment we should be creating for kids is one of healthy habits.

“It’s about eating good, nutritious food whenever you can. It’s about being physically active and moving your body, regardless of your weight.”

Regulation of junk food ads

Currently, food and beverage advertising to kids is self-regulated by the food and beverage industry.

But, according to Health Canada’s website, self-regulatory approaches have often been found to be ineffective in meaningfully reducing children’s exposure to food advertisements.

“Children are particularly vulnerable to advertising. Food advertising influences children’s food attitudes, preferences, purchase requests, consumption patterns and, ultimately, overall health. Children in Canada are exposed to a high amount of advertising for foods that contain sodium, sugars and saturated fat,” a spokesperson from Health Canada said in an email to Global News.

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“To better protect the health of this vulnerable population, we are working to introduce restrictions on the advertising of certain foods to children.”

In April, Health Canada updated its proposal to amend the Food and Drug Regulations, with the goal of restricting ads for children of foods that promote excess intakes of sodium, sugar and saturated fat.

Click to play video: 'Canadian kids bombarded with junk food ads online'

Canadian kids bombarded with junk food ads online

This includes television and digital ads for candy, chips, chocolates and pop drinks that target children under the age of 13.

The policy update was currently seeking public opinion on the topic until June 12, 2023. The draft regulations will be published around winter 2024.

There is another regulation currently working its way through Parliament, called Bill C-52, which seeks to prohibit the marketing of foods that contain excessive amounts of sugar, sodium and saturated fats to children below the age of 13.

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Additionally, the bill contains a provision that would mandate Health Canada to monitor the impact of the bill on the marketing of foods and beverages to teenagers between ages 13 and 18.

The bill is currently awaiting a third reading in the House of Commons.

Although the researchers of the University of Ottawa study and Warshawski believe these bills and policy amendments are a step in the right direction, they argued more needs to be done.

“What’s lacking is the fact that when you walk down the food aisle with your child who’s under the age of 12, or maybe older, the products which are at eye level, such as the Frosted Flakes, are right there,” he said.

“And what this study indicates is that these characters, primarily ones created by the corporations, Tony the Tiger … he’s not selling carrots. Tony the Tiger is selling basically candy in the guise of breakfast cereal.”

The researchers and Warshawski recommend Canada take a step further with its regulations and ban these characters altogether.

For example, in an effort to fight childhood obesity, in 2018 Chile banned the use of cartoon characters on children’s food packaging, primarily sugary cereals.

So these characters either should be retired or they should be repurposed,” Warshawski said.

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