Children’s magazines are exposing young people to unhealthy food marketing, potentially contributing to childhood obesity, according to research from the University of Auckland.
The study found unhealthy foods were advertised much more frequently than healthy food in popular children’s magazines.
The content analysis study looked at five magazines with the highest readership among 10 to 17 year olds and another targeted specifically at this age group. It involved one issue per month for a year for each magazine between December 2012 and January 2014.
Across the six titles, Girlfriend, Dolly, Creme, Woman's Day, Woman's Weekly and SkyWatch, advertising for unhealthy foods occupied 43 per cent of the food marketing space, compared to 23 percent selling healthy foods.
The magazines specifically targeted at children contained a significantly higher proportion of unhealthy food advertising (72 percent) compared to those targeted at older population groups (42 percent).
Snack items such as chocolates and ice cream were marketed most frequently (36 percent) while vegetables and fruit were marketed the least (3 percent).
Research shows that food marketing to children really does influence their food choices and their health, said one of the report's authors.
“Magazines also need to be aware of their role in contributing to the continued increase in unhealthy food consumption and obesity,” said principal investigator Dr Stefanie Vandevijvere, a research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Auckland.
It is concerning that the magazines overwhelmingly featured unhealthy food, and they should have a responsibility to promote healthy eating, said Vandevijvere.
“Magazines could take socially responsible editorial positions on healthy eating and reducing obesity, such as they do for similar issues (such as for self-esteem not showing skinny models).”
However, one of the magazines says it actively and consistently endorses healthy eating in its editorial content.
"We run recipes and the focus is on healthy eating. We have run articles around sugar and the negative effects of eating sugary things. We have a mind body life section which promotes exercise, well being and, again, healthy eating and healthy recipes," said Rebecca Blithe ,editor of Girlfriend magazine.
While things like chocolate may make up a small portion of giveaways, the magazine's main content is around a healthy lifestyle.
"The predominant message is healthy eating, exercise, and a holistic approach to your health and well being," said Blithe.
The majority of advertising is health and beauty products and food advertising makes up only a very small portion of advertising.
The findings raise concerns about the efficacy of self-regulation in marketing and the government must regulate food advertising to curb children’s potential high exposure to unhealthy food, said Vandevijvere.
“They even seem to breach their own code which stipulates that food marketing should not undermine the food and nutrition policies of the Government, the Ministry of Health’s Food and Nutrition Guidelines, nor the health and well-being of children,” she said.
All foods referred to in the study were classified into healthy or unhealthy foods, according to a food-based Ministry of Health system.