CAPPA – Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa

Unregulated Marketing of High-Sodium Foods: What the Government Must Do

Food environments, including how certain foods are promoted, marketed, and distributed, play a critical role in influencing a population’s dietary choices, especially those of vulnerable groups such as children and adolescents. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an unhealthy food environment is one where healthy food are not readily available, accessible, or affordable, while unhealthy foods, largely ultra-processed, are promoted through various channels and strategies, making them more preferred and desirable over fresh, healthy, and nutritious options.

Empirical evidence shows that unhealthy marketing is powerful and highly persuasive, as it creates social norms around food, shapes lifestyles, and increases preference for diets that pose a grave threat to public health and workforce productivity. While traditional marketing has long been used to promote unhealthy foods, the increasing digitalization of food promotion has opened new avenues for exploitation.  Platforms such as social media, mobile applications, video games, emails, and search engines are now being utilized to influence food choices, purchasing habits, and consumption patterns within households and across targeted groups.

Specifically, the promotion of manufactured food products such as noodles, seasonings, snacks, confectioneries, and non-alcoholic beverages adopts strategies such as premiums, cartoon characters, celebrity endorsers, branded toys, in-school marketing, television game shows, outdoor games and events, radio jingles, competitions, and social media ads on websites with huge traffic. These tactics focusing on hedonistic appeals rather than providing accurate nutritional information, increase children’s demand for junk foods and influence family choices by leveraging the “pester power” phenomenon, where children beg their parents or caregivers to purchase the advertised unhealthy food.

Unsurprisingly, the consequences of these unhealthy marketing gimmicks are severe. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), millions of children worldwide are consuming more ultra-processed foods that are industrially formulated and often contain high levels of salt, sodium, sugar, and saturated fats, leading to devastating lifelong consequences such as early exposure to hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and cancers, among other Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) that could result in premature death.

To pushback against this trend, countries are responding by adopting evidence-based recommendations from the WHO and UNICEF to enact effective food regulations. For example, the government of Chile introduced food labelling and advertising laws as part of its strategy to combat high rates of NCDs in the country. These laws placed marketing restrictions on fatty, high-sodium, sugary, or calorie-dense foods, particularly targeting children. They also prohibited the advertisement of unwholesome foods on TV during child-friendly hours and on popular children’s websites. This initiative significantly reduced the exposure of preschoolers and adolescents to unhealthy food and beverage marketing, without observable impacts on market outcomes, aggregate employment, and wages within the affected industries.

Similarly, the United Kingdom applied comparable restrictions on fast food advertising in broadcast media to improve their health indices and limit such marketing to children. Paid advertisements on social media sites including Facebook, Instagram, and X (formally Twitter) were also included in the ban. Drawing from these examples and successes, the Nigerian government and concerned policymakers can tackle the rising issue of NCDs in the country by adopting similar intervention and implementing mandatory regulations to curb the marketing of unhealthy foods, particularly high-sodium diets, to minors. This will include prohibiting the marketing of such foods within school environments, educational content, and child-centric spaces. Furthermore, it is imperative to continuously educate the public and enforce policies that promote comprehensive front-of-pack warning labels on packaging, allowing consumers to make informed dietary choices. Importantly, salt reduction is a cost-effective public health strategy that demands a multi-sectoral approach and coordinated strategies and actions to improve public health outcomes and national productivity. As such, all stakeholders must continue to put heads together to prioritize public health.

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