Free toys can push kids to unhealthy food
Obesity experts say freebies, in the form of toys, should be restricted to attracting children to healthier options.
Mother-of-three Rowena Gray understands the pull power of Peppa Pig and the magnetism of Minions when it comes to food marketing and children.
The lactation consultant may be "pretty tough", restricting her children to healthy options, but that does not stop them continually pestering her for anything branded with popular television and movie characters.
"They will be drawn to it every single time," said Mrs Gray, who has three daughters aged four to nine.
"And it's mostly the yoghurt with the highest sugar content in it, so it's not the one I'm interested in buying."
While this issue has long been a struggle for parents, obesity experts are now calling for a ban on free toys and movie characters being used to sell unhealthy foods in Australian restaurants and supermarkets.
But they do not want to ban toys completely.
They say the "pester power" of freebies should be restricted to attracting children to healthier options.
"I think it's clearly a really powerful marketing tool. Why not use it to promote healthy foods?" said Obesity Policy Coalition executive manager Jane Martin.
It follows a Cancer Council Victoria study involving 900 Melbourne school children that found children were more likely to choose the McDonald's Happy Meals that had toys.
Only 17 per cent of children choose the healthier Happy Meal option (such as a wrap and fruit bag), over less healthy options (such as cheeseburgers and soft drink), when meals did not include a toy.
But when only the healthy meals came with a toy the number of children that choose the healthier option almost doubled, to 32 per cent.
"Rather than ban food-related premiums altogether, [our] findings support the use of these promotions as vehicles for promoting healthier meal choices to children," the study concluded.
Such a measure would reverse current trends, where free toys, stickers, collectables and competitions tend to be used to promote chocolate, fast food, sugary cereals and other unhealthy options.
Lead author of the Cancer Council study, Dr Helen Dixon, called for a ban on giveaways for foods judged unhealthy using scientific criteria similar to the calculator used to determine Australia's Health Star Ratings.
Dr Dixon said the measure may also encourage companies to reformulate their products to make them healthier.
But Dr Dixon warned that any future Australian regulations should be carefully worded to avoided potential loopholes where restaurants could sell toys separately.
There are already some regulations that exist around food marketing to children, with signatories of a responsible advertising to children pledging that advertisements will not have a greater focus on freebie toys than the meals themselves.
Australian Food and Grocery Council communications director James Mathews also said "under existing advertising codes, signatories have to advertise healthy options with their food choices".
A McDonald's spokesperson said the restaurant included toys in Happy Meals because parents said it was an "important part of that treat and what makes a visit to McDonald's fun and special".
"Parents have the opportunity to choose from a number of different alternatives, including healthy options like a seared chicken wrap, apple slices, low-fat flavoured milk, fruit juice and water," the spokesperson said.
But mum Rowena Gray said she would rather see toys and other marketing gimmicks banned from all children's food – healthy and unhealthy.
"I think it just causes a lot of pain and agony for parents," she said.