Are unhealthy breakfast cereals contributing to Spain’s obesity problem?

Posted: 15 February 2021 | | No comments yet

There is concern in Spain that some products, such as drinking chocolate, escape current regulation that limits advertising unhealthy foods to children.

sugary breakfast cereal

Researchers in Spain think sugary breakfast cereals could be partly to blame for what they have called Spain’s rising childhood obesity problem.

The transition from the traditional Mediterranean diet to the consumption of processed foods with low nutritional value is a key contributor, with child-targeted advertising also partly to blame, according to Mireia Montaña, a professor at the University Oberta of Catalunya’s Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences. 

The Breakfast Food Advertisements in Mediterranean Countries: Products’ Sugar Content in Adverts from 2015 to 2019 report, produced by Montaña, claims the majority of breakfast products marketed for children contain three times as much sugar as those aimed at adults, influencing their choices for one of the most important meals of the day.

The study, published in the open access journal, Children, analysed 355 advertisements from 117 different products between 2015 and 2019. It concluded that the average amount of sugar in the breakfast products analysed and advertised for adults was 10.25 percent. That figure increased to an average of 36.20 percent when it came to products aimed at children.

“Although much of the adult population still adhere to the Mediterranean diet, it is a practice that is waning among children and young people, who are increasingly opting to eat processed industrial products with a high sugar content for breakfast,” said Mireia Montaña.

Mònika Jiménez, professor of Advertising and Public Relations at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) and co-author of another study involving Montaña (Breakfast Food Advertising and Prevention of Obesity: Analysis of the Nutritional Value of the Products and Discursive Strategies Used in the Breakfast Ads from 2015 to 2019), warned of the dangers of persuasive advertising in relation to food products of low nutritional value.

“The less closely a product correlates to that which would be deemed healthy nutritional parameters, the greater the tendency for the advertising discourse to focus on hedonism or happiness and tend towards persuasion,” she said.  

Jiménez claims that when ads allude to positive emotions, happiness and the things that product can help you achieve, it stimulates certain areas of the brain that lead us to consume. This a strategy which she said is “especially harmful in relation to certain audiences, such as minors, because they are very susceptible to these kinds of stimuli”. 

The ‘pester power’ effect is driving obesity

As Montaña’s study points out, one of the consequences of advertising campaigns that market breakfast products to children is the increased amount of processed foods being purchased as breakfast options for children that then end up being consumed by the whole family.

“Children tend to insistently ask for things so that their parents end up giving in and buying food products that are advertised extensively or that have some extrinsic component that attracts children but that have very little nutritional value,” she explained.

Spain already has rules in place to limit the impact of unhealthy food adverts on children, yet as the two researchers pointed out, this only applies to products exclusively for children. “Drinking chocolate is a product that is also perfectly applicable to adults and, therefore, is not subject to the code,” Jiménez explained.

“Furthermore, these advertisements are not always exclusively broadcast during restricted children’s viewing times, which is another tactic that can be used to circumvent the regulation.”

In addition to the need for a more stringent regulatory framework, a variety of other actions could be implemented to help reduce current levels of childhood obesity, including, “effective education on the subject of nutrition in general, both for parents and children”.

Another policy that may work well is to “increase the rate of VAT on certain products, as has already been done in the case of soft drinks”, suggested the UOC professor, who concluded with the apt reminder that an obese child is likely to develop into an obese adult.

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