The Food Standards Authority, the government body, published a report today looking at how food promotion influences children. It found that, unsurprisingly, not only is there is a lot of food advertising for children, but, significantly, that it has an effect on children's preferences, purchase behaviour and consumption.
The report singles out television advertising as the dominant medium, and found five main products were promoted: pre-sugared breakfast cereals, soft drinks, confectionery, savoury snacks and fast food outlets.
It says that the diets advertised are far removed from what is recommended by health advisers and that the advertising promotes fun and fantasy rather than looking at issues of health and nutrition.
It has been welcomed by those campaigning for a healthier diet.
Kath Dalmeny, policy officer for the Food Commission, said: "Children are already eating too much fat, sugar and salt, yet we allow them to be systematically targeted with advertising for unhealthy foods.
"The Food Standards Agency's review provides the evidence of what parents have known all along -- advertising encourages children to choose unhealthy foods and to pester their parents for them."
With worldwide concern about the growing obesity epidemic, there is pressure on governments across the globe to ban the advertising of junk food to children.
In the US, the fattest country in the world, McDonald's has recently faced a lawsuit from two obese teenagers, blaming its advertising and lack of nutritional information in its restaurants for their health problems, although a judge threw the suit out of court.
Debate over the efficacy of advertising in driving sales of junk food is likely to end up with the situation of advertisers claiming that the marketing campaigns in which they invest millions of pounds do not actually encourage people to purchase their products. This argument was used by tobacco companies until all cigarette advertising was banned earlier this year.
The Food Advertising Unit, the division of the Advertising Associaton that represents food manufacturers, played down the findings and said that the report failed to focus on other factors, such as the influence of parents on eating habits, the importance of sibling and peer group pressure, or the effect of reduced exercise.
"Increasing levels of overweight and obesity among the population are a result of an imbalance in energy intake and expenditure and is affected by a range of important lifestyle factors, advertising being at best a minor influence," said FAU director Jeremy Preston.
The Food Standards Agency has gone to extensive lengths to prove that the way food is promoted influences children's diets. It has looked at a total of 29,946 potentially relevant pieces of research, and used 118 research papers describing a total of 101 studies.
The next step, trying to prove a link between food promotion and obesity, would be difficult to prove according to the report. It said that while there was a link between watching TV and obesity, it was impossible to determine whether this was caused by the sedentary nature of watching TV or the snacking that might take place while watching, although one study said that the more food advertisements seen by children, the more snacks were consumed.
The Food Standards Authority said that the advertising industry wanted to be a part of the solution and would be making further comment when it had fully studied the review.
A summary of the report is available at Food.gov.uk
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