Food and diet

Disney 'to ban junk food adverts'

Walt Disney will “ban junk food ads on its TV, radio and online programmes”, according to the BBC. The Disney corporation has announced that by 2015 it will phase out adverts for products that do not conform to its nutritional guidelines, and will also aim to promote healthier foods such as fruit. Nearly one-third of US children are estimated to be overweight or obese.

As well as producing films and TV shows, Disney operates a string of children’s television stations and the national broadcaster ABC, which means this decision is likely to have a major impact on the way unhealthy foods are marketed and sold in the US. The guidelines stipulate that to be suitable for advertising, food products must contain limited levels of sugar, salt and fat. All meals sold must also conform to strict limits when it comes to advertising. For example, fast food hamburger meals can’t be promoted if their total nutrient content is at an unhealthy level, even if the burger, fries and drink components are each within the required limits when counted separately.

Also among the restrictions is a ruling that no products containing added trans fats can be advertised. Trans fats are a controversial type of fat that some experts consider to be particularly damaging to health. Added trans fats or hydrogenated fats can be found in some processed foods such as cakes and biscuits. In the UK, most people eat below the recommended levels of these fats, although in the US they are more commonly added to food to help give products a longer shelf life.

US First Lady Michelle Obama has welcomed the move, calling it a “game changer for the health of our children” at the Disney press conference. Mrs Obama currently runs a national campaign to help promote health, nutrition and physical activity among US children.

Disney is not alone in launching eye-catching initiatives aimed at improving the health of children. The Cartoon Network has set up the “Move It Movement”, associated with a US government children’s fitness initiative, The President’s Challenge.

What is being changed?

From 2015, food and drink companies advertising on US Disney channels will have to comply with the company’s nutrition guidelines, which were established in 2006. The company says its guidelines were drawn up with the help of nutritional experts and are in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans standards set by the US government.

Disney’s nutrition guidelines have already been used to associate its brand, storylines and characters with more nutritionally balanced foods, such as Disney-branded dried fruit. It is also committed to ensuring 85% of its own licensed food products, sold in its resorts or through retailers, meet the guidelines. The company says the remaining 15% of foods will be “reserved for special occasion treats”. It is not clear if this commitment in resorts only applies to Disney-branded products, or if it will also extend to the sale of food and beverages made by other companies, such as popular soft drinks.

What do the nutrition guidelines say?

The Disney nutrition guidelines say that food and drink should:

  • “contribute to the nutritious diet” by promoting the consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein (termed “approved food groups”)
  • encourage appropriate portion sizes for children based on their reduced need for calories
  • limit nutrients such as sodium, added sugar, saturated fats and trans fats

The guidelines set out detailed criteria for the levels of fat and different types of meals and food items, such as breakfasts, side dishes, nuggets, meatballs, sausages, hotdogs, cheese and yoghurt. They specify the amount of calories, saturated fat, sugar, sodium and added trans fats each item should contain, as well as the “approved food groups”. For example, nuggets and meatballs that provide any added trans fat or more than any of the following would not be advertised:

  • 250 calories
  • 1.1g of saturated fat
  • 2.5g of sugar per 100 calories
  • 480mg of sodium

The guidelines also stipulate limits for entire meals, so that they can’t simply be made up of items that would combine to provide excessive levels of calories, fat or salt.

What effect will this have?

The move is intended to ban advertising of high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar food aimed at children, and to promote more nutritious foods in all Disney’s US media outlets, such as their television channels and websites. Disney says it is the latest move in its partnership with parents to “inspire kids to lead healthier lifestyles” and to “support better choices for families”.

Many newspapers reported that the move is aimed at tackling obesity among US children, although how far it will be able to address this problem is uncertain.

Will this affect the UK?

The initiative applies to Disney’s US media outlets and its nutritional standards are based on US national guidelines. Whether the ban might extend to Disney’s UK ventures, now or in the future, is unclear. However, Disney-branded food products sold in UK supermarkets do include a “healthy food range” for children.

Is anything similar being done in the UK to promote healthy lifestyles to children?

In the UK, there are some regulations banning the advertising of certain foods during children's TV programming, as set out by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). These state that food or drink products that are high in fat, salt or sugar (according to Food Standards Agency definitions) should not be marketed towards children using licensed characters, such as famous cartoon characters. The ASA regulations also prohibit food adverts that exert peer pressure on children or encourage them to pester their parents. Oddly though, the regulations do not stop food manufacturers from creating characters to specifically advertise brands.

Some campaigners would like to like to see the ban during children’s programmes extended to “family” programming and also to the internet, where regulation on food advertising aimed at children is regarded as weaker. In the UK, there is nothing that matches the detailed nutritional criteria for specific foods that Disney has set out in the US.

In England, the Public Health Responsibility Deal is a government initiative to improve public health by working with corporations and organisations that have influence over food, alcohol, physical activity and health in the workplace. Around 20 big food and drink companies have pledged to encourage customers to eat and drink fewer calories through measures such as reviewing portion sizes and providing nutritional information. This is intended to help cut 5 billion calories from the population’s daily diet.

Change4Life is an NHS initiative aimed at encouraging adults, children and families to eat healthier foods and adopt healthier lifestyles.

NHS Attribution