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In a bid to protect children from the detrimental impact of food marketing, the World Health Organization (WHO) has unveiled a set of new guidelines. These guidelines recommend that countries establish comprehensive mandatory policies to shield children of all ages from the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages high in saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, and salt (HFSS).

Source: TEDx Talks/YouTube

Despite the endorsement of WHO’s recommendations on food marketing to children by Member States over a decade ago in 2010, children are still exposed to influential marketing campaigns promoting HFSS products. The consumption of these foods and beverages has been linked to adverse health outcomes.

The updated guideline is based on a thorough review of recent evidence, examining the influence of food marketing on children’s health, eating behaviors, and attitudes toward food. It emphasizes that food marketing remains a significant threat to public health, affecting children’s food choices, intended choices, and dietary intake, and shaping their norms related to food consumption.

The recommendation is also informed by a systematic review of evidence on policies aimed at restricting food marketing, including contextual factors. The review highlights that the most effective policies are those that are mandatory and cover children of all ages. These policies should utilize a government-led nutrient profile model to classify foods that should be restricted from marketing. Additionally, the guidelines emphasize the importance of comprehensive policies that minimize the risk of marketing shifting to other age groups, spaces within the same medium, or to other media, including digital platforms. Restricting the persuasive power of food marketing, such as the use of cartoons, promotional toys, advertising with songs, and celebrity endorsements that appeal to children, is also deemed impactful.

Based on this evidence, WHO now recommends the mandatory regulation of marketing HFSS foods and non-alcoholic beverages, moving away from previously allowing for a range of policy approaches. The updated guideline also adopts the Convention on the Rights of the Child’s definition of a child to emphasize the need for policies that protect all children unequivocally. Furthermore, it suggests the use of a government-led nutrient profile model and comprehensive policies to prevent marketing restrictions from being circumvented across different media or age groups.

It is important to adapt policy decisions based on these guidelines to the local contexts of WHO regions and Member States. The adoption and adaptation of the recommendation should involve local consultations, with safeguards in place to ensure that public health policy-making remains free from undue influence or conflicts of interest.

The guidelines emphasize that policies to protect children from harmful food marketing are most effective when implemented as part of a comprehensive approach to creating supportive and enabling food environments. As such, this guideline is part of a series of forthcoming guidelines on food environment policies. Together, these guidelines aim to Support governments in creating healthy food environments that foster healthy dietary decisions, establish lifelong healthy eating habits, improve dietary quality, and reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases globally.

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