Nearly three quarters of Canadian children are exposed to food marketing while using popular social media apps, a new study from the University of Ottawa found.

The study, commissioned by Heart & Stroke, found that children see an estimated 111 advertisements for food per week, or an average of 5,772 ads per year on apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube.

The majority of those ads promoted ultra-processed foods and beverages high in fat, salt, or sugar, the study found.

“This level of exposure may greatly influence children’s perception of a normal diet, as well as their food preferences and the foods they actually consume,” Monique Potvin Kent, the study’s author, said in a news release.

According to research, childhood obesity in Canada has doubled since the 1970s, while obesity in adolescents has tripled in the past 30 years, putting kids at greater risk for chronic conditions and illnesses.

In the face of growing childhood obesity rates around the world, the World Health Organization has urged countries to adopt policies that limit childhood exposure to marketing that promotes unhealthy food.

Despite the extensive body of evidence that shows food marketing shapes children’s dietary behaviours, Canada currently lacks formal regulations marketing junk food to children outside of a traditional broadcast environment.

The study

The latest study examined social media and gaming apps used by children and pre-teens to see how food advertising is presented on the platforms most commonly used by children. 

The study recruited 101 children aged 7to 16 in the Ottawa area, and directed them to use two of their favourite social media apps for two periods of five minutes.

Participants used the apps as they normally would, wearing specialized eye tracking glasses that recorded what they saw on screen for researchers to later examine.

The study broke down content into four categories: food advertisements, user-generated content that promotes a brand, celebrity-generated food marketing, and food marketing embedded in other content.

These could range from explicit paid advertisements from companies to prolonged shots of branded food in videos, or even a web poll asking users about their favourite flavour of chips.

The food and beverages advertised were then judged by the Pan American Health Organization Nutrient Profile Model, which determines the healthfulness of food.

Eighty-five per cent of the food and beverage products advterised were categorized as ultra-processed, while 97 per cent were products deemed high in fat, sodium, or sugar.

The researchers also looked at exposure to food marketing in gaming applications, finding that only 9 per cent of the 138 games tested during the study featured food advertisements.

Averaged out over a year, kids are likely to only see an average of 145 food advertisements in gaming apps, compared to the 5772 they’ll likely see on social media. 

Regulating junk food advertising to children

The study’s release comes just days before Bill S-228 is to have its final vote in the Senate.

Currently in Canada, excluding Quebec, food and beverage advertising to children is self-regulated by voluntary participation in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

Eighteen large companies, including Coca Cola, Kraft, and McDonalds, created the initiative, committing to advertising “healthier” products to children under 12, or not at all when certain conditions are met.

The bill, sponsored by former Senator Nancy Greene Raine, seeks to amend the Food and Drug Act to restrict marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children.