Tracking kids’ food: Comparing the nutritional value and marketing appeals of child-targeted supermarket products over time

Charlene Elliott

This study looks at how foods targeted towards children have changed between 2009 and 2017 in Canada. The authors assess the nutrition profiles as well as marketing techniques overtime, and consider what these trends might mean for child nutrition in Canada, and globally. The findings suggest there is greater scope for public private engagement to work to make more nutritious foods both available and appealing to children.  

The study uses two evaluative criteria for nutritional product assessment:

  1. The US Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) criteria for Poor Nutritional Quality (PNQ) with a modified criteria to evaluate sugar (to represent an established nutritional standard at the time of the first data collection in 2009)
  2. The WHO Regional Office for Europe Model (to represent current standards).  

Food were then classed as PNQ if more than 20% of their calories derive from sugar per 200-calorie serving. 

The WHO model classifies products into one of 17 food categories and considers whether or not they should be marketed to children. According to WHO, chocolate, confectionery, juices, energy drinks, should never be marketed to children; for other categories, any product that exceeds one or more nutrient threshold per 100g for total fat, saturated fat, total sugar, added sugar, non-sugar sweetener, salt, and energy should also be excluded from child-targeted marketing practices. Based on these criteria, authors found that over time, only about 12% products were appropriate for child-targeted marketing.

Other key findings included:

  • The number of child-targeted supermarket foods increased over time—from 354 products in 2009 to 374 products in 2017
  • 72.9% and 77.3% of products had excess sugar in 2009 and 2017, respectively
  • Nearly 9 out of every 10 products exceeded the sugar, sodium, or fat threshold at both time points
  • Using the CSPI criteria, 88.7% of products in 2009 and 86.9% of products in 2017 would be classified as PNQ 
  • Using the WHO model, 88% of these child-targeted products (in both years tracked) would not be permitted to be marketed to children
  • The two most common marketing techniques included fonts that appeal to children and the use of cartoons on product packaging (prevalence of both increased over time)
  • Products with excess sodium decreased from 12.1% in 2009 to 5.3% in 2017

This study highlights the importance of children as consumers - parents not only shop with their children's health in mind, but also children have the potential to influence purchasing decisions for the family. Food companies are aware of this potential and have made some strides to improve their offerings, but a lot more can be done to use this opportunity to improve nutrition for children and families.

The authors conclude this study by calling out the "critical need to consider the regulation of packaging—both in Canada and internationally—as part of the strategy for creating an “enabling food environment” for children." 

For more details on the methodology and additional findings from this study, read the full article: Tracking Kids’ Food: Comparing the Nutritional Value and Marketing Appeals of Child-Targeted Supermarket Products Over Time

And for helpful synopsis and commentary, check out this Food Dive piece: Study: 88% of children's foods don't meet WHO nutritional standards