Health experts want cartoons off junk food
Research by the Obesity Policy Coalition found food packaging which used cartoons was often unhealthy.
Cartoon characters on food packaging such as Kellogg's Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam are fuelling Australia's childhood obesity crisis and should be restricted, public health experts say.
Researchers at the Obesity Policy Coalition surveyed 186 packaged foods with cartoon characters designed to lure children, and found 52 per cent were classified as unhealthy, based on Food Standards' Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion.
They found 87 per cent of snack bars, 61 per cent of cheese snacks and 32 per cent of breakfast cereals featuring colourful cartoons were unhealthy, laden with fat, sugar and/or salt.
They pinpointed Nestle's sweet and sticky "fruit" straps Roll-Ups, Streets Paddle Pop and its Lion, and Kellogg's sugary Frosties, Coco Pops and Froot Loops breakfast cereals as some of the worst offenders.
Frosties, spruiked by Tony the Tiger, contains more than 41 grams of sugar per 100 grams.
In some cases, cartoon characters such as the Paddle Pop Lion and the Yogo Gorilla are the stars of free online games, apps and videos, strengthening the food makers' grip on children.
The coalition's executive manager, Jane Martin, said it was "extremely frustrating" to see food companies continue to hook children and create pester power using cartoons.
Twenty-seven per cent of Australian children are considered overweight or obese.
"Food companies know that children have an incredible amount of power over what their parents buy, and that's why Chile, a country that has been very progressive in obesity prevention, has restricted the use of cartoons on unhealthy food packaging," she said.
"It's a shame that this powerful marketing tactic is not being used to sell more healthy products instead."
It will take decades to see if Chile's new food labelling laws have an impact on its high obesity rates.
Ms Martin said industry self-regulation was not working because it didn't cover promotions on food packaging, and regardless, companies were breaking their own rules.
The coalition – a partnership between Cancer Council Victoria, Diabetes Victoria and the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University – is urging manufacturers to stop using animations to promote junk food to children, and the federal government to extend and strengthen existing junk-food marketing regulations.
"Peak health bodies, such as the World Health Organisation, recognise that restricting junk-food marketing to children is a vital step in improving children's diets and slowing our serious obesity problem," she said.
A Kellogg spokesman said the call to eliminate characters such as Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam was akin to asking Qantas to get rid of the "flying kangaroo" because they were part of its heritage.
"The coalition is effectively saying to parents that they have less influence on their kids than a picture of a tiger or a monkey on a box of cereal, which is hugely discrediting to what parents decide to choose or don't choose for their kids," he said.
The multinational company pointed out it had a wide portfolio of cereal products, including Sultana Bran, which has a 4.5 health star rating. It also said it abided by various children's marketing codes.
A Nestle spokeswoman said it targeted all packaging at the "main grocery buyer", not children, and almost all promotional activity for snacks eaten by children focused on Uncle Toby's muesli bar ranges.
"Nestle is voluntarily strengthening its policy around marketing to children effective January 2018," she said. "This updated policy will set stricter standards for direct marketing to children at point of sale and for use of licensed characters on pack."
An Australian Food and Grocery Council spokesman said: "Parents are best placed to make the right food choices for their kids and they have a role in using their purchasing discretion to determine what foods they purchase."