A mother and daughter grocery shopping.

Foods Marketed at Kids Aren’t Always Grrrrrrreat!

Based on new research, what kids want at the supermarket (sugar) and what they need (protein, fibre, iron) aren't always coming together.


While parents are usually the ones purchasing food for their families, many food products are actually marketed towards children. From brightly coloured cereals to sweet snacks, these products are a big hit with kids — but according to a new study, the nutritional value of these child-appealing products leaves a lot to be desired.

The study was led by Christine Mulligan, a PhD candidate in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, and published in PLOS ONE.

Healthy eating is crucial for children’s development and well-being, yet the majority of Canadian kids don’t meet the recommended standards for healthy eating. The quantity of unhealthy food available in grocery stores certainly isn’t helping — especially when many of these unhealthy products appeal directly to children.

To learn more about this issue, the researchers behind the study investigated nearly 6,000 Canadian food products in the Food Label Information Program database. This included products that used marketing techniques aimed at children, and the researchers were interested in how these products compared to others in terms of their nutritional value.

The researchers classified the products based on the type of advertising techniques they used, as well as how effective these techniques were at appealing to children. For example, some products used child-appealing graphics such as cartoon drawings. Others used unconventional shapes for the product itself — for example, animal-shaped crackers — while others included games on the packaging.

The researchers then evaluated each of the products under Canada’s Child Health Protection Act, a bill proposed in 2016 to restrict the marketing of unhealthy food towards children under 13. The bill — which unfortunately never passed — defined critical thresholds for sodium, sugars, and saturated fats. Products exceeding one of these thresholds were not to be marketed towards children.

Of the nearly 6,000 products the team studied, 12.8% used some form of child-appealing packaging. Cereals and toaster pastries had the highest proportion of child-appealing packaging, while cheeses and meats had among the lowest. The most commonly used marketing techniques included child-appealing graphics and the presence of a branded character or spokesperson (for example, Tony the Tiger).

In terms of their nutritional content, the team found that child-appealing products were more likely to be restricted under the Child Health Protection Act than products without child-appealing marketing. In fact, more than 82% of products with child-appealing packaging exceeded at least one of the Act’s critical thresholds.

Child-appealing products also tended to be higher in sugars, while non-child-appealing products were higher in fats. Yet child-appealing products also contained fewer positive nutrients such as protein, fibre, iron, and calcium.

This study highlights just how big of an impact marketing can have when it comes to children’s health and nutrition. While the original Child Health Protection Act from 2016 never passed, it’s important that we keep advocating for regulations around child-focused food products.

Thankfully, the Canadian government is taking action to keep Canadian children healthy. Health Canada is currently seeking input on a policy update that would restrict the advertising of unhealthy food products to children through television and digital media.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.