Are food marketers responsible for obesity?

29 Nov



With child obesity in Canada exceeding 30%, due to our high intake of salt and sugar there is a higher risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. The related health problems cost society and government in health care costs. This has led to suggestions that junk food should be taxed, or banned (large drink, trans-fats).



Consumer Side Debate


Why do children love fast food? Well why not; it tastes great, looks appealing, usually comes with a toy, and if the child is lucky there is a “play area” inside of the establishment to keep them entertained. Tie this in with focused advertising, limited healthy options and ease of access and you start to see why our kids today are growing up unhealthy, overweight and unaware of the health risks.


Junk food is everywhere from fast food restaurants, school cafeterias and grocery stores all the way to convenience stores and vending machines. Part of the problem is this ease of access. Stocking school cafeterias with chips, cookies, pizza’s, fries etc. leaves little room for healthier options such as salads, sandwiches, fruits and nuts. And even if healthier options are made available, why would a child choose it? Companies spend millions of dollars on advertising products to children.


The use fictitious characters to sell the product (Ronald McDonald, The Trix Rabbit), products that tie confectionaries into the product (Lucky Charms & marshmallows), the placement of advertisements on children television stations (YTV) and associating the product with children in the ad (Kids drinking Sunny Delight) are just a few tactics harnessed by these companies. In addition, a report in the United States by the Federal Trade Commission estimated that in 2006, 10 restaurant chains spent over $350 million on kid’s meal toys. To put this into perspective, that’s over 1.2 billion kid’s meals with toys. A report by the Institute of Medicine cited this tactic as “an environment that puts children’s health at risk.” Recent studies also show that kids gain an increased appetite when they see a recognized, junk food companies’ logo. (Brice, 2012) What’s more compelling is that these same children tie emotions of satisfaction and happiness to these brands, just through the visual impact of the logo; no food involved.(Ipaktchian, 2011) It is this strong brand recognition cycle – product to company, company to child, child to product,  that creates protest from parents.



Kids don’t know the calorie count, sodium intake and fat content of junk food. Evidence suggests that fast food contributes to increased calorie intake and obesity risks in children. (Fast Food Linked To Child Obesity, 2009) Research shows children gaining up to  approximately 6 lbs. per year and up to 60 lbs. in 10 years, which is extremely significant for children between the ages of 5 – 15 as there average height (5 ft.) becomes disproportionate to their weight. (Pakhare, 2011) Another study shows that kids who live in a country with strong competitive food laws gained less weight than those in countries with little or no restrictions; and that the law restricted children reached a healthier weight by the eighth grade in comparison to children who do not have government restrictions. (Sifferlin, 2012)


Although it might be modest to imply that the law is the only factor that directly cause kids to live healthier lives, many public-health officials and “obesity experts” still support the ban of junk food from schools; even when the distributors and school districts who make a profit off this food are opposing the thought. (Sifferlin, 2012) Policy-makers are taking action to protect children from fast-food trends which include limiting soft drink/ snacking food sales in schools and restraining food advertising aimed at children. (Fast Food Linked To Child Obesity, 2009) Even with these boundaries in place, the fact is that the percentage of children eating unhealthy food is higher than the percentage of children eating healthy food.



Company Side Debate


On the other hand, the corporate responses on children’s obesity differ quite significantly from the consumers’ point of view. In short it is ultimately the consumers responsibility to be aware of what they put in their bodies and corporations should not be scapegoats. Secondly, there are many other external factors that attribute to obesity and consumers need to focus on resolving these issues.


As Coca-Cola puts it, “Coca-Cola and other food and beverage companies are viewed by some as major contributors to the problem (obesity), but real solutions are more complex than selecting targets for blame. As the world’s largest beverage company, we need to become a recognized leader, working in collaboration with other stakeholders, to identify and implement workable solutions that help people achieve more active, healthy lifestyles.” And Coca-Cola has; starting with the promotion and support of nutrition education and physical activity programs in addition to the development of educational tools and programs aimed at the importance of energy balance in active, healthy lifestyles. Coca-Cola isn’t the only company makes changes either.(Coca Cola Company, 2012)



Kraft foods announced that it would be voluntarily reducing sodium in its food by 10% in 2012 while Mars is developing its own front of package labels; placing calorie information on the front of its candy. Pepsi Co. also announced a voluntary policy to stop the sales of full-sugar soft drinks in primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012; these all being examples of how companies are making changes in lieu of the public’s responses.(Nestle, 2010)


Additionally, it must also be made clear that there are numerous other factors that affect a child’s weight. For example, elementary and high schools are continually decreasing physical activities for children. In the past, school boards required children to exercise in excess of 60 minutes a day however today, due to budget cuts school boards encourage anywhere from 30 to 0 minutes of physical activity per day. (Sifferlin, 2012) Corporations cannot be responsible for lack of physical activity among children, and are not responsible for encouraging it.  If the government has no interest in encouraging physical activity among children, then why should a corporation?

These companies are already responsible for disclosing nutritional information about their products according to the Food and Drugs Act in Canada.  Food packaging must declare nutritional facts about the product, such as fat content and calories. Food packaging and labelling are also subject to inspection by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. This visibility is just another way corporations

act in the best interest of the public, ensuring people are “informed” of healthy choices.




Food marketers cannot be held responsible for a child’s personal choice, misuse and abuse of products as this responsibility lies in the hands of the child’s parents. Kids have become obese not just because of junk food, but several other factors including lack of physical activity, poor diet, and poor information/decisions.


Parents should not be looking to food makers and marketers for advice on nutrition and healthy lifestyle. Conversely, food makers and marketers should not be responsible for supporting and encouraging healthy lifestyles of their consumers. Seeking out healthy living and nutritional advice from companies such as McDonalds is like a consumer seeking sobriety advice from Labatt’s.


Action has already been taken by companies with voluntary steps to reduce sodium and fat content in their products, as well as meeting government regulations regarding the display of nutritional information and exceeding them by making nutritional information as visible as possible. Additionally, fast food companies such as McDonalds have begun offering healthy alternatives on their menus. The options are available; it is up to the Parent to make the right choice for their child.


Supplementary steps can be taken by the government to help resolve the issue however the answer is not simply through heavy handed regulations. For example, New York has banned large sodas in restaurants, citing that the high sugar content leads to obesity and increased health care. However, soda is still available in smaller quantities in restaurants and in larger quantities at grocery stores. Regardless of what is imposed, people will find a way around it. Taxes, bans, and regulations are not the answer in the fight against childhood obesity, educated, responsible parents who know what healthy choices are and how to make them are what will have a real effect on the future of children.


The government needs to also encourage more participation in physical activities and teach healthy choice decision making to children. Investments made in these programs will help “raise the bar” in schools, encouraging increased levels of physical activities, classes teaching children about nutrition and how to make healthy eating decisions. By the time these children grown to adults, they will have a foundation of nutritional knowledge that will help them make the right choices for their children. In the end, childhood obesity circles back to one main point: that it is in the hands of the parents to ensure and instill the right information to help grow a healthy child.









(2012). Retrieved from Coca Cola Company:


Brice, M. (2012, September 25). “I’m Lovin’ It”: Fast-Food Logos ‘Imprinted’ in Children’s Brains, Study Says. Retrieved from Medical Daily:


Fast Food Linked To Child Obesity. (2009, February 11). Retrieved from CBS News:


Ipaktchian, S. (2011, December). Study looks at fast-food restaurant response to first limits on free toys with kids’ meals. Retrieved from Standford School of Medicine:


Nestle, M. (2010, March 18). What are food companies doing about childhood obesity? Retrieved from Food Politics:


Pakhare, J. (2011). Fast Food and Obesity in Children. Retrieved from Buzzle:


Sifferlin, A. (2012, August 13). Can Laws Against Junk Food in Schools Rein In Child Obesity? Retrieved from Time Healthland :





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