Agencies paying special attention to food marketing tactics
WHILE childhood obesity here has not ballooned into a big problem like in the United States, organisations here continue to step up efforts to manage the issue. Last week , the Federal Trade Commission in the US released guidelines that include clamping down on marketing tactics such as product placements in movies and online games. Here, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) will be releasing its first-ever set of guidelines to guard against indiscriminate advertising and marketing of food and beverages to children. These guidelines are expected to be ready after June, said a spokesman. Currently, advertisers abide by the Code of Advertising Practice set by the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore. It states, for example, that advertisements should not actively encourage children to replace main meals with confectionery or snacks.
According to lead dietitian Karen Wright of nutrition consultancy The Food Clinic, children, and even their parents, tend to go for less wholesome choices – whether in supermarkets or eating out in hawker centres or fast-food outlets – because these products are often cheaper and may have colourful cartoon characters that entice the young ones. Another allure – less-wholesome food tends to taste better but only because they are higher in fat and sugar.
A Straits Times check at a popular supermarket found more than 60 products – sweets, biscuits, drinks and cereals – aimed at children. They use cartoon mascots or have bright packaging. Referring to one particular chocolate snack, mother-of-three Annie Poh, 37, noted: “The packaging is very attractive and it also comes with a toy.” Added the housewife: “There was a period period of time when my children would bug me to get it for them.”
Latest statistics indicate that about 12.1 per cent of Primary 1 boys here were obese in 2009 – slightly down from 13.1 per cent four years earlier. Some 10.8 per cent of Primary 1 girls were obese in 2009 – lower than the 12.3 per cent in 2006, according to the Yearbook of Statistics Singapore 2010. For Asians, obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 27.5 and above. In the US, close to 20 per cent of children aged six to 11 are obese. This is largely due to the popularity of junk food.
The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) has also been working to reduce marketing tactics levelled at children. A report published in 2008 by Consumers International, of which Case was involved, revealed high levels of calories, fat and sugar in children’s fast-food meals. A typical child’s fast-food meal here contains about 40 per cent of the daily recommended intake of calories for boys aged seven to 10. The same goes for saturated fat. The same year, the association joined a global effort to urge fast-food restaurants to promote healthier options for children.
Case’s executive director Seah Seng Choon said efforts appear to be paying off as it has not seen any extreme advertising that encourages excessive consumption among children in the past few years. “But we are certainly hoping for better measures to be put in place,” he added. The HPB is also revising nutritional guidelines for children – last updated in 2007 – which will be finalised later this year.
Current guidelines contain a detailed food guide, such as the number of servings a child should eat a day, according to his age. It also has advice on breastfeeding for infants, supplements and vegetarian diets. The HPB also introduced a programme last December that teaches mothers- to-be good dietary habits so that their children are less likely to become overweight in the future. The programme, rolled out in hospitals, workplaces and the community, is based on growing evidence that how a baby develops in the womb can put him at risk of chronic diseases, including obesity, as an adult.
The battle of the bulge in schools saw the roll-out of the Healthy Eating in Schools Programme in 2003. As of 2009, 87 per cent of school tuckshops were acknowledged to offer healthier fare under this collaboration between the HPB and the Ministry of Education. Housewife Jann Ng, 39, feels the responsibility for keeping children trim and fit also falls on parents. She rarely takes her two children to fast-food joints and does not usually buy sweets for them. “As long as parents don’t buy sweets or junk food for their children, they won’t grow up craving for them,” she said. “The junk food available out there can be very unhealthy and I wouldn’t want my children to be obese.”
Nutritionist Teo Kiok Seng from Nutrition Network Services said one can opt for healthier hawker fare and fast food too. For example, ask the hawker to use more vegetables, less salt and less oil, and go for grilled rather than deep-fried stuff at fast-food outlets.