Thursday 7 March 2019

Junk food (part one)

Action on Sugar/Salt gets acres of news coverage every other week by looking at the labels on food and putting the figures on a press release, accompanied by a quote from some nutritionist who is 'shocked' by the amount of sugar/salt in it.

They were at it again on Monday with some claims about salt in restaurant meals. Their headline figure was that 40 per cent of meals tested have got saltier in recent years. This sounds dubious from the get-go and TGI Friday, whose chicken burger Action on Sugar/Salt claimed was the saltiest, said the pressure group was plain wrong:

“as independent nutritional analysis has shown our kids’ chicken burger meal to contain 1.5g of salt, not 5.3g as cited in the report."

Nevertheless, MacGregor's mob got blanket media coverage, just as they did two weeks earlier when they complained about the amount of sugar in breakfast cereal.

If there is an easier way of getting free publicity than collating readily available data from the side of food packaging, I'd like to see it. And yet the media never seem to get bored of it.

I mention this because today saw the release of an interesting report from the Advertising Association about a subject that has been in the news a lot recently: so-called 'junk food' advertising. The report contains some genuinely original research has some new and useful findings.

For instance, it finds that children's 'exposure' to HFSS food advertising has fallen by 37% since 2008 and that the average child sees a mere 11.5 seconds of it per day. Given that the government wants to ban HFSS food advertising on the pretext of tackling childhood obesity, you'd think that there would be some interest in this. You'd also think that there would be some interest in the fact that childhood obesity has not fallen over the period in which children's 'exposure' to these ads has declined.

Apparently not. Although the Advertising Association press released their report, I can only find one media outlet (City AM) that has reported it.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there are two reasons for the media's indifference. Firstly, the Advertising Association is an industry body. Secondly, the findings do not serve the moral panic about childhood obesity and 'junk food' advertising.

I understand that journalists are there to sell newspapers and that hysterical claims are more appealing to readers than cold, hard facts, but if journalists insist on only telling one side of a story they shouldn't be surprised when they find themselves accomplices to a scam. 

Take the confusion between 'junk food' and HFSS (high in fat, salt and sugar) food. I have been banging on about HFSS food not being 'junk food' for some time. Here are some recent tweets which predate the Farmdrop episode that finally brought attention to the issue...

And here is the Telegraph's political correspondent yesterday...

Politician engages in spin - stop the press!

If journalists had bothered to do a bit of basic research (like, y'know, reading the second paragraph of the Mayor of London's press release) none of this would have come as a surprise.

And if the issue wasn't 'junk food' but Brexit or budget cuts or something more obviously political, journalists would have dug a little deeper. But white hat bias means that anything to do with 'public health' gets a free pass.

Still, all of this has been serendipitous timing for me because I have an IEA briefing out tomorrow that discusses the HFSS/junk food confusion in some depth. It was sent off to the graphic designer two weeks ago. Since then, the TfL advertising ban has come into effect and the Farmdrop case has exposed the problem perfectly. I wrote about the latter for The Sun today...

We are sleep-walking into legislation that is far more extensive than most of us realise. Hysterical claims about junk food have been used as cover for tobacco-style regulation being rolled out across the food supply.

The nation’s biggest and most important industry could soon be banned from advertising most of its products during daytime television, costing broadcasters tens of millions of pounds and lowering the quality of programming.

The ban on HFSS products being positioned at the entrance, checkout and end of aisle will cause shopkeepers all kinds of headaches, and the ban on discounts, such as buy-one-get-one-free, could cost consumers hundreds of pounds a year.

Surely a rethink is in order?

Have a read and check back here tomorrow for the briefing. There will be a video too...

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