Children are being tricked into unhealthy food choices by marketers who make misleading nutritional claims and use celebrities to endorse their products, according to research by an anti-obesity action group.
Boys are the main victims and are 96 per cent more likely to choose unhealthy food products if they have nutrient claims like "high in calcium" or "good source of protein" on the packaging.
They are 65 per cent more likely to choose unhealthy products if they are endorsed by male sports stars.
Only male sport starts were used for the study. They had no impact on girls food choices, but girls were nonetheless 66 per cent more likely to make unhealthy choices based on nutrient claims.
"Featuring nutrient content claims and sports celebrity endorsements on unhealthy food products can tip children's food preferences towards less nutritious products," says Dr Helen Dixon, senior research Fellow for obesity prevention at the Cancer Council Victoria.
"These findings add to the evidence on the effect of food packaging promotions on young people's food choices," says Dr Dixon, whose group studied food the choices of 1,300 children aged around 11 years old.
The results prompted Obesity Policy Coalition to call for stricter regulation to ensure people are not confused by inaccurate marketing messages.
"The majority of child-oriented marketing techniques appear on packaging of foods that are high in kilojoules and low in nutritional value," says the coalition's Jane Martin.
Nutrient content claims typically highlight positive characteristics and ignore negatives like high sugar or fat content.
The coalition, which includes several leading health agencies, wants celebrities to be more careful about the products they endorse.
They should think about the fact that 25 per cent of Australian children are overweight or obese and "decide whether that's something they want to be involved with", Ms Martin says.
"Many parents aren't aware how unhealthy many of the products endorsed by sports stars are."
FOOD CHOICE TIPS
• Be wary of products with a lot of nutrition claims and those promoted by sport stars
• Statements like good source of energy often mean the product is high in sugar - more than 15g of sugar per 100g is high
• If a product has more than five ingredients and the list includes things you don't recognise, look for something which is less processed
• Use the FoodSwitch app to calculate the nutritional value of a product and to find healthier alternatives
Source: Obesity Policy Coalition