Advertisements shown during children's television before new restrictive regulations were introduced were not any more focused on unhealthy food than adverts shown at other times, according to research published ahead of print in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.
A common belief that TV advertisers were targeting children in particular with unhealthy foods before new Ofcom regulations were introduced in 2007 to prevent this, was not the case, researchers found, questioning what real impact the regulations will actually have.
Growing rates of obesity and overweight children in developed countries is a current concern and it is commonly believed that TV adverts for less healthy foods contribute to this problem.
New regulations came into effect in the UK in 2007 to prohibit adverts for less healthy foods during or around programmes "of particular appeal to" (OPAT) children. In Canada, self-regulated codes of practice on TV food advertising to children were recently strengthened.
Researchers from the UK, Canada and the USA studied the nutritional content of food adverts and adverts likely to be seen by children (i.e. shown during children's programmes) in the UK and Canada before regulations were introduced.
All food adverts broadcast on four popular channels in Canada and three terrestrial commercial channels in the UK during a week-long period in 2006 were analysed for the study.
The researchers linked these adverts to relevant nutritional data. They also identified which food adverts were for "less healthy" products, using the criteria in the UK regulations.
Collectively, 2,315 food related adverts broadcast in Canada and 1,365 broadcast in the UK were analysed and overall, 52-61% were for less healthy products. Only 5-11% of all the adverts shown were ones likely to be seen by children.
Just 5% of the food adverts seen would have been prohibited under the UK regulations, the researchers found.
The authors concluded that there was little evidence that food described in adverts likely to be seen by children were any less healthy than those shown at other times and that few food adverts would have been prohibited by the new regulations.
They said: "This is the first published study exploring TV food advertising to children in the context of the Ofcom regulations implemented in the UK in April 2007. Few food advertisements are likely to be prohibited under the new UK regulations."