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Too much salt, fat and sugar: study confirms problematic food marketing on social media

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(Vienna, 17 January 2020) A study conducted by MedUni Vienna on behalf of the Ministry of Health shows that around half of the online content of food brands on social media is explicitly aimed at children and young people. However, according to the nutritional profile of the National Nutrition Commission, the majority of this content is not suitable for advertising to this target group. Politicians are now calling for stricter regulations for food marketing aimed at children.

Social media play an important role in the everyday lives of children and young people. The Medical University of Vienna was therefore commissioned by the Ministry of Health to analyse the advertising environment of the four social media platforms most frequently used by children and young people: Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Twitch. Advertising posts for food, drinks and product presentations from the 61 largest food brands in Austria and the German-speaking influencers with the widest reach were analysed over the course of a year.

The results show: Around half of the online content from food brands on social media is explicitly aimed at children and young people. Over 70 per cent of the food advertising shown on social media is not suitable for advertising to children, according to the nutritional profile of the National Nutrition Commission. The most common products are chocolate and confectionery (17%), drinks such as soft drinks (11%) and ready meals and convenience foods (10%). The nutritional profile makes it possible to categorise foods and assess whether they are suitable for marketing to children. It is intended to protect children from advertising for unhealthy foods and non-alcoholic drinks. It is a non-binding recommendation of the National Nutrition Commission.

The same applies to food advertised by influencers. According to the Austrian nutritional profile, between 57% and 73% of products should not be advertised, depending on the platform - most frequently chocolate and confectionery (11%-28%), followed by cakes, sweet biscuits and pastries (12%-23%), ready meals and convenience foods (9%-22%) and drinks (11%-12%). On YouTube channels aimed specifically at children, chocolate and confectionery (28%) top the list, and on the Twitch streaming platform, energy drinks (44%).

Strategically influencing children and young people
The use of influencers is a comparatively new advertising strategy. The large number of followers, their personal appearance and their approachability are particularly valuable for advertisers. Labelling paid content as advertising is mandatory. However, due to the personal and very direct form of address, children and young people often find it difficult to distinguish between non-commercial and commercial content despite the labelling.

According to the study authors Eva Winzer, Brigitte Naderer, Sandra Haider and Maria Wakolbinger from MedUni Vienna's Center for Public Health, the evidence shows that advertising for foods and drinks with a high fat, sugar and salt content changes the dietary behaviour of children and young people. This increases the risk of developing overweight and obesity as well as potentially lifelong secondary diseases.

Need to catch up on protection against unregulated food marketing
The Ministry of Health has therefore already implemented measures that primarily serve to raise awareness. Recommendations have been drawn up for local authorities, healthcare facilities and educational establishments, such as the guidelines for school buffets, the school catering checklist and quality standards for nurseries, retirement and care homes and businesses. Health Minister Johannes Rauch is also in favour of legal regulation of food advertising to children and young people: "We must protect children in particular from the influence of advertising. The new study by the Medical University of Vienna clearly shows that in addition to raising awareness, strengthening health literacy and voluntary recommendations, we also need restrictions on food advertising aimed specifically at children and young people." (Source: APA/OTS)

To the study