/ Food & Drink

Are too many unhealthy food ads appearing during ‘family’ shows?

boy watching tv

It’s all very well restricting adverts for unhealthy foods during children’s TV, but what about the shows watched by families that don’t fall under that category? It’s time the rules caught up with our viewing habits.

Research published last week from the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) showed that children are still bombarded with adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) when they are watching TV.

Prime time to target children

Despite rules that were introduced in 2007 that restrict HFSS foods being advertised during children’s programmes, the research showed that only 27% of the programmes children watch are covered by these restrictions. Nearly half (49%) of their viewing is when the restrictions don’t apply during ‘family viewing’ hours.

The current rules are based on the proportion of children watching, which means that some programmes such as reality talent shows, Hollyoaks, Ninja Warrior and The Simpsons, that children watch in large numbers, but which adults also watch, are not covered by the advertising restrictions.

This doesn’t make sense – it’s estimated that during one week in February 2017, The Voice was watched by 918,000 children whereas Ben and Holly (which falls under the restrictions) was watched by 195,000.

Close the advertising loopholes

Which? has supported restrictions on HFSS advertising to children, but we feel that they don’t go far enough. We would like to see advertisements for unhealthy foods that appear in programmes that receive a large audience of children covered by advertising rules.

We also want the rules to take into account the changes in the way that children now watch TV, by including catch-up and on-demand streaming services.

While the recent tightening of non-broadcast media rules was welcome, there are also still ways that children are exposed to advertising of unhealthy foods that haven’t been tackled, for example on packaging and sponsorship. And even when they are covered, there are gaps such as cartoon characters invented by food companies.

These loopholes need to be dealt with as research shows a clear link between the food and drink adverts children see and the food they choose and how much they consume. This is especially important as now more than a third of children in England leave primary school overweight or obese.

Have you noticed these adverts appearing at times when you are watching family shows with your children? If so, do you agree that wider rules need to be applied across different TV slots?


I hate to pick holes, but are you inferring a direct link between advertising and child obesity? As I understand it, current research merely suggests that the more inactive a child is, the more obese they become. I haven’t found any direct evidence of links between specific types of TV programming and childhood obesity which, given the heading of this topic, I’d expect to find.

I suspect there’s also another aspect, and that’s parenting. In the age groups studied (7 – 13) parents play a pivotal role in ensuring that children eat the right foods and watch the right TV. It’s also the job of parents to ensure the child gets enough exercise, plays actively outside and doesn’t have a TV in the bedroom, something we didn’t permit our children to have. I worry that by putting onus of the obesity ‘epidemic’ onto TV schedulers, parents will feel able to abdicate any sense of parental responsibility, and that can’t be good.


The key piece on which the OHA bases most of its conclusions is the Hastings study and review of the available evidence. Now this bears careful study, because it does not categorically support what the OHA is claiming.

Specifically, Hastings finds “Evidence from more complex studies (capable of establishing causality) shows that food promotion … seems to have little influence on children’s general perceptions of what constitutes a healthy diet, but in certain contexts it does have an effect on more specific types of nutritional knowledge.”. So, in summary, the evidence to support the hypothesis that watching ads for certain types of foods on TV causes childhood obesity is next to non-existent.

OHA might have a marginal case, but more in the realm of the physiological aspects of TV in the bedroom mitigating against a good night’s sleep, something which is known to increase overweight in children. But this is a far cry from being able to establish that showing kids images of ice cream and burgers will ensure their weight spirals out of control.


I agree with your analysis Ian. I also believe we are too fond of finding someone to blame – other than ourselves. Parents have a key job in bringing up their children in a healthy way – food and entertainment included. Whilst they might spend their pocket money on junk food and drink, the majority of their food should be provided by, or under the supervision of, their parent(s) and they should see to it that it is healthy food. Their responsibility. But are they up to it?i

Another way to prevent obesity is to get them off their bottoms and participate in activities. You don’t see many fat sportsmen. Too much screen watching..


I didn’t want to come over as overtly negative, so I should make some positive suggestions. With all the various ways in which children can now watch adverts – Facebook, Social media in general, streaming – arguing for stricter controls on TV ads is probably a case of bolting stable doors far too late.

But Which? might have a much stronger case against the manufacturers of unhealthy foods through enforced and much clearer labelling. Simplistic labelling (the traffic light system) does address things partially, but the simple fact is that most convenience foods now contain a number of chemical additives, the interactions of which it’s often extremely hard to determine or of which the long term consequences of consuming are still uncertain.

So perhaps Which? could use its position and influence as a Consumer champion to bring together nutritionists, paediatric consultants, researchers and the food industry to try to arrive at a commonly agreed system for identifying foods by health value. This would take some thinking, but we do already know that some foods are inherently good: vegetables, some fruits, fish, nuts, seeds and so on, while we also know that some are probably not that good – foods laced with sugar and salt come to mind immediately, but there’s growing evidence that nitrites in processed foods, such as bacon, might have long term health risks.

Perhaps Which? might then be able to draw up guidelines in respect of the daily amount of exercise children need to remain heathy; the evidence that external play is rapidly disappearing is pretty uncontroversial and parents should be reassured that external play is no bad thing and remains relatively safe.

These would be positive steps towards helping parents make the right choices for their children’s food and would avoid the statistically and evidentially dubious route of attacking TV schedulers for the child obesity issue.


I would definitely like to see carbohydrates and sugars labelled better.

A strawberry jam with no added sugar using fruit juice concentrates as a sweetener contains:
carbs 52g, sugars 52g per 100g.
A supermarket own brand using sugar states total sugar content 60g per 100g
carbs 58.3g, sugars 49.5g per 100g

These figures are very confusing and often misleading.

As diabetes is a major problem in the UK and NOT always caused by being overweight, I would like to see the percentage of each type of sugar in the ingredients list.


What information are you looking for, Alfa? I think it would be useful to have carbohydrates classified as complex carbohydrates that are digested slowly and those that are broken down so quickly that you might as well be eating sugar.

A couple of the skinniest people I know have Type I diabetes.


Feeding a diet-controlled diabetic with a dairy allergy, I have to read the labels of everything.

I aim to buy foods with less than 4% sugars and also take carbs as a whole into consideration.

My problem is products that contain both naturally occurring sugars and added sugar. Ingredients listings just state sugar and I would be able to make a better informed decision if the percentage of each sugar type was listed.

Carrots contain 4.7%, parsnips 4.8%, peas 5.9%, sweetcorn 7.7% sugars but he wouldn’t stop eating them (sweetcorn in moderation). Fruit is also high in sugar.

What they do though, is push up the sugars on soup or a ready meal and I have to consider the other ingredients and guess whether that food is suitable for him. Sugar is added to many of these products.

Interestingly, looking for an example, sugars in soups seem to have decreased greatly as I couldn’t find a bad one and I know there used to be some really bad ones. Carrot juice was used as a sweetener in one soup.

I am not sure classifying carbs would be the answer as opinions on them change too regularly.


I don’t envy you having to read the labels, Alfa. I try to steer clear of foods with added sugar if there is an alternative without it, though I remain to be convinced that added sugar is worse.

The second component of Heinz tomato soup is listed as modified cornflour, though there is no indication of how it is modified or the amount present. Cornflour is mainly starch, I believe, and will quickly raise the blood sugar as eating sugar does. I’m going to make soup this afternoon and I will not be adding sugar or cornflour.

It would be interesting to compare the nutritional composition of home-made food with ready meals.