From Aisles to Algorithms: The Crackdown on Unhealthy Food Promotions

Milo Sinclair, Intern

Discussions around increased regulatory action against food and drink which is high in fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS) have been high up on the political agenda in recent years. The likely incoming Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, is the latest politician to promise action, pledging a strategy to tackle childhood obesity.

These conversations have been happening in parallel with social media increasingly influencing young people’s views, including on the food they consume. So, what does the future hold for the food industry when it comes to the digital advertising of unhealthy products?

There has been a significant political shift regarding promoting healthy eating for young people in the UK, as seen by the government’s target to halve childhood obesity by 2030. Several regulations were implemented in 2021, aiming to limit the availability and advertising of HFSS. However, recently The Food Foundation reported that obesity among 10-11 years-olds has increased by 30% since 2006 rather than decreasing.

These restrictions have found relative success, with more brands and stores taking it upon themselves to limit HFSS and sell more health-conscious foods. Consumer demand has also shifted, with customers increasingly shopping for healthier foods – figures published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2023 showed the UK and Ireland jointly top a table of 33 countries comparing how many people report having five portions of fruit and veg a day. However, a gap in legislation still looms as a serious threat to the health and eating habits of the future generation.

Specifically, whilst there has been an increased focus on protecting children and young people specifically, from the harms of HFSS, legislators have failed to recognize a key influence on children’s’ eating behaviors: social media.

Social media influence in this context takes many forms: advertising on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, product placement on livestreaming sites like TikTok and Twitch, and brand sponsorships with influencers who promote products through consistent, targeted posts. For example, we’ve seen big brands like McDonalds and Coca-Cola partner with popular pop-culture figures and organizations like the rapper Travis Scott and the e-Sports Overwatch League. Partnerships like these only further increase the rate at which children are rapidly consuming all these forms of promotion.

Social media, and more specifically livestreaming sites, have a proven and profound impact on the behaviors of viewers. A study published early this year from Frontiers in Nutrition, a food science journal, produced an array of findings relating to online advertising and the consumption of unhealthy food. It found that exposure to unhealthy food marketing across social media platforms was positively associated with greater intake and preference of those foods. As part of the study, they interviewed a large sample of livestreaming users and found that increased product placement of certain foods had a direct correlation to increased cravings of these advertised foods. 

It is clear that food advertising on social media has a direct correlation with viewer consumption of HFSS, but what action is the next UK government likely to take to combat this relationship? Might they approach the issue in a similar way to in-store promotion and HFSS availability, by mandating live streamers and social media influencers to only advertise healthy foods?

In 2023, Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer, while making clear a tax on HFSS was out of the question, promised to ban advertising of HFSS to children if his party was elected. A version of this pledge also made its way into the recent Labour manifesto.

With Labour predicted to form the next government, regulatory reform of food advertising is likely to be on the docket for the upcoming year. However, the question stands: will digital advertising of HFSS on social media have a place in any future regulation? It’s certainly possible given the evidence of how it drives eating habits and given how young people today consume media compared to previous generations. In 2023, The Guardian reported that just 54% of young people (16-24 year-olds) watch any live television, instead video sharing platforms such as YouTube and TikTok are increasingly eating into audience time. Labour also hasn’t been shy in saying that it will change the regulatory environment for tech in other areas, such as giving coroners more power to access information held by technology companies after a child’s death.

It seems likely giving the insurmountable evidence of its correlation with eating habits. In order to avoid potentially disproportionate measures being imposed by government, it will be important for members of the food and drink sector and the platforms they use to promote their products to be proactive in showing how they are promoting healthy lifestyles.

We have already seen other sectors like public health use the far-reaching engagement of social media in a positive way, through promoting vaccines on Instagram during Covid, and HIV self-tests on certain dating apps. A shift in how food products are advertised on social media may well be the next meaningful way in which tech shows how company and the wider public interest can be combined. It is now time for the food sector to act similarly, for the betterment of their organizations and the youth of the UK.

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