Defining Goals for Regulating Food Marketing

Marketplace at GisorsIn food policy, there’s plenty that people are ready to fight about. Dairy and meat come to mind. Anyone who’s reading this will doubtless have their own list of hot topics. But one subject that gets most people nodding their heads is marketing junk food to children. So for more than a decade, the World Health Organization has been calling for regulating the marketing of unhealthy food to children.

A recent systematic review of policies to do this concludes that “policies can effectively limit food marketing to children.”

So What Is the Effect?

Emma Boyland and colleagues say that their study is a study of the effect of these policies. They found 44 observational studies that met their criteria for this review.

The investigators did look for evidence that these policies might affect food purchases, diet, and health related outcomes. But for the most part, they did not find much. The certainty of evidence for an effect on food purchases was low. Certainty of evidence for an effect on diet was very low. For health-related outcomes there was no evidence at all.

So at the end of the day, we are left with the conclusion that the effect of policies for regulating food marketing to children is to limit it. That’s it. Beyond that, everything else is a leap of faith because:

“None of the included studies reported on the important outcomes of product requests, dental caries/erosion, BMI/obesity, or diet-related NCDs.”

But This Must Be Positive

Belief is powerful. If we are convinced that food marketing to children is bad, then restricting it is good. The authors of this study seem untroubled by the lack of evidence for an effect on diet or health. Their interpretation of this study is that WHO recommendations to restrict food marketing are good:

“Policymakers should prioritize mandatory approaches aligned with WHO recommendations.”

In short, junk food marketing to children is bad. Restricting it has the effect of reducing it. So that’s good. Though this logic is simple, we are having a hard time following it. Call us crazy, but we want to see good evidence for an effect on diet and health. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Click here for the systematic review by Boyland et al, here, here, and here for further perspective.

Marketplace at Gisors, painting by Camille Pissarro / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


April 30, 2022

3 Responses to “Defining Goals for Regulating Food Marketing”

  1. April 30, 2022 at 6:36 am, David Brown said:

    I fail to see where advertising is related to the increase in obesity among children or adults or laboratory and other domesticated animals. The fact that all are affected suggests a common etiology[1] which can’t possibly be saturated fats or carbohydrates[2].


  2. April 30, 2022 at 3:07 pm, Neva Cochran said:

    Totally agree with you, Ted. The time and money spent on trying regulate, legislate and tax people’s eating habits without significant or positive results for health would be so much better utilized in working with individuals and families to help them eat more nutrient-rich meals and on research on drugs/strategies/treatments that would be successful.

    • April 30, 2022 at 4:23 pm, Ted said:

      I agree with the need for a balanced approach guided by evidence. I do think that food marketing is a problem in our obesogenic environment. But many people who talk the most about it have no clue what marketing really is.