Jane Bradley: We are nation of junk food pushers

With children bombarded by sweet treats, we need schools to take a stronger lead on healthy eating says Jane Bradley
Far from being seen as an occasional treat, sugary, unhealthy snacks are all too often seen as a regular feature of childrens diets. Picture: Getty ImagesFar from being seen as an occasional treat, sugary, unhealthy snacks are all too often seen as a regular feature of childrens diets. Picture: Getty Images
Far from being seen as an occasional treat, sugary, unhealthy snacks are all too often seen as a regular feature of childrens diets. Picture: Getty Images

We are a nation of junk food pushers - and our market is our own children.

A daily drip feed tells youngsters that sweet and sugary is good - and vegetables are bad. Cakes, sweets and puddings are dangled, tantalisingly, at youngsters all day long. Junk food is everywhere and it needs to stop - not just through consuming less, but with a major societal change.

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Some official moves have been made to improve the situation - junk food ads on online programmes aimed specifically at children would be prohibited under new rules put forward by Committee on Advertising Practice. Similar marketing at youngsters on TV has been banned for years. But this is not enough.

The biggest problem is not merely professional advertisers, but ordinary members of society.

In Scotland, more than a quarter of Scottish children are either overweight or obese, according to the most recent Scottish Health Survey - while around 200,000 Scots suffer from type 2 diabetes.

This is a crisis: but we are doing little about it. Books, TV programmes, films and merchandise constantly glorify foods which are destroying the health of young people. We fill our children’s heads with these notions every day.

Peppa Pig loves cake; even the Gruffalo talks about ice cream. Everything aimed at young children celebrates the unhealthy - and maligns the better options.

Cupcakes and ice creams, festooned with as many sparkles and sugar flowers as possible, decorate many a backpack, pencil case or notebook cover aimed, usually, at young girls. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to have dinosaurs and footballs marketed to them as decoration - perhaps a reason that fewer men than women spend their adult years battling to stick to weight-loss diets.

These unhealthy items are portrayed as the “naughty but nice” foods, a delicious treat loved by everyone. Vegetables and healthy fruit, on the other hand, are a joke in books and media.

Of course, the occasional sweet treat is fine as part of a balanced diet, assuming that a treat suggests something occasional - but in the modern world, they are a daily occurrence, offered universally at birthday parties, weekend outings and playdates.

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The trend for whole-class birthday parties means youngsters are often at a “one-off” celebration almost every weekend, where the supply of cakes, pizzas, crisps and biscuits is almost limitless.

Similarly, a visit to the cinema - through billboards and reminders at the ticket booth to “visit the food stand” - pushes the idea of sitting in the dark with an enormous box of popcorn bigger than the average toddler’s head. “Bad” food is everywhere.

Add in baking projects at school and at home; ice cream at the interval in the theatre, huge numbers of gifted Easter eggs which provide sugary treats for weeks; Christmas; a bag of sweets opened at a friend’s house; the occasional Friday night pizza.

Even coffee shops are laden with hunks of cakes and brownies: finding a healthy snack option for a young child while out and about is almost impossible.

The perennial “lunch bag” - which allows youngsters to choose from a number of items to create a pick and mix lunch - varies in its message, even at cafes in supermarkets, which claim to be doing their best to promote healthier eating.

The kids’s lunch deal is an opportunity for supermarkets to promote a positive message - one which some stores have worked hard to do. In store, some chains have withdrawn the most sugary of soft drinks from their aisles, while pressure has mounted to encourage retailers to promote healthier items rather than foods which are known to contribute to obesity.

But, while Morrisons has a rule that one of its five items must be a piece of fruit, on a recent visit to a Tesco cafe I discovered that Britain’s biggest supermarket does not offer fresh fruit at all as part of the kids’s lunch deal. Instead, a “fruit pot”, akin to those tins of “fruit cocktail” we ate at our grandparents’s house in the 1980s, is the only fruity option on offer. Ironically, Tesco offers a banana, apple or orange to all children free as their parents shop - boasting just this week that 20 million pieces of fruit have been handed out to youngsters in store since the scheme was launched in July last year.

Initiatives like this should be welcomed, but they need to be followed through. Similarly, many lunch deals claim to inclde water as a drink option but in practice fail to put it out as an option, instead pushing sugary fruit juices and sweetener-laden Fruit Shoots.

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A year ago, I put in a Freedom of Information Act request to every council in Scotland, asking for a sample school meal menu for a week, and a nutritional breakdown. I wrote an in-depth piece about my findings, naming and shaming specific council areas which broke the rules. As a parent of a pre-schooler, I was horrified. What was most concerning was the nutritional postcode lottery suffered by children. In some local authorities, strawberry milk was available as a drink every day, while others offered only water, or plain milk at a push.

The problem was not just that some of the meals exceeded the Scottish Government’s guidelines on sugar, salt or fat. Some did, but not many. The issue was that in some council areas, food that should be considered junk food was on offer almost every day.

Pizza, followed by burger and chips the next day, followed by a sausage roll. Nutritionists I consulted pointed out that while there wasn’t too much bad stuff in these foods - the councils had somehow managed to buy frozen sausage rolls which remained within the rules - there wasn’t anything good either. No decent protein, no fresh veg.

And what was more, it gave children the impression that junk food, which should be an occasional treat, was an every day way to eat.

Since then, in some council areas at least, the situation seems to have improved - slightly.

New government guidelines are due to be drawn up later this year which will hopefully improve the situation further. But from my findings last year, they had a long way to go.

This is an opportunity for schools to lead the way in a revolution of society which needs to begin now.