It's too easy to blame McDonald's and Coke for child obesity, says Netmums MD

Brands such as Coke and McDonald's should be "applauded" for trying to offer healthier products, as public opinion turns against high-fat and high-sugar food and drink.

Childhood obesity: brands like Coke and McDonald's should be praised for efforts in transparency
Childhood obesity: brands like Coke and McDonald's should be praised for efforts in transparency

That’s according to the managing director of Netmums, Rimi Atwal, who spoke to Marketing ahead of the publication of the government’s childhood obesity strategy report, due this summer.

The report will comprise measures to stop the weight of children in the UK from ballooning further, with one in five children around the age of five classified as obese, according to Public Health England.

Campaigners have called for more stringent rules on advertisers, with the charity Cancer Research UK among those calling for a "sugar tax", under which consumers would pay more for sugary food and drink.

Read more: Food and drink brands fear ad bans, store promotion clampdowns and the 'sugar tax'

However, Atwal says the brands traditionally associated with high-sugar, salt and fat foods (HFSS) – such as fast-food outlets and soft-drink manufacturers – should be praised for becoming more transparent.

Coca-Cola, for example, has put more marketing emphasis behind Coca-Cola Life, Coke Zero and Diet Coke, its low- and no-sugar alternatives to Red Coke. McDonald's, meanwhile, has been on a long-running transparency drive to attract younger consumers.

"Coca-Cola should be applauded for taking action and being open about what they are doing with their products. They are transparent in their marketing and highlighting products in their range that are perceived by parents and consumers to be the healthier option," said Atwal.

"Similarly, McDonald’s has spent a lot of time and thought in terms of how it positions itself to parents," she added. "It’s easy for these two to be cited as the most controversial brands, but actually their issues are the same as other well-known brands. They are part of the grocery shop, or part of the weekend treat. All brands face the same issue."

Netmums has been in consultation with the government over the childhood obesity strategy report, the publication of which has now been delayed until the summer.

Netmums’ hope, of course, is that such brands will work on its platform on a bespoke basis. The site has 8m mothers registered as users, and Atwal says the service can provide insight on their views on controversial topics, like health and food.

In a recent poll, Netmums’ audience ranked the 10 rumoured childhood obesity strategy policies in the following order:  

1. Reduce sugar content in everyday food and drink

2. Clear labelling showing teaspoons of sugar

3. Improve food standards in all schools

4. Restrict unhealthy food advertising to children

5. Health and nutrition education

6. Tax on sugary drinks

7. Healthy foods in hospitals and schools

8. Reduce supermarket promotions

9. Reduce portion sizes

10. National Child measurement programme

The sugar tax, Atwal pointed out, was relatively low on the list, with parents instead interested in overall reduction of sugar, and greater transparency around labelling. That the onus is then on parents to educate themselves and their children is not necessarily an issue.

She said: "Brands have an opportunity to help parents on this journey. Trust and honesty go a long way.

"Brands are not seen as the villains, but one part of the solution. There’s no magic bullet – children are overweight and it’s not for one single reason."

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