More and more obesity at young age: Is the confectionery industry at fault?

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By Julia Luise Tiemens

Walking Germany’s streets, one phenomenon catches visible attention: more and more children are obese or overweight. This has many reasons, including the Covid 19 pandemic and the behavior of the parents. A huge role, however, is played by the confectionery industry that idolizes unhealthy food in their children-targeted commercials. Young children often do not have the mental capacity yet to comprehend the manipulation by advertisements, and are therefore not able to take a step back. One could wonder, what is being done against this change and why is this increase so dangerous? 

In Germany today, we can say that every 7th child is overweight. The percentage of children that are too heavy has grown 33,5 percent between 2011 and 2021 in 6- to 18-year-olds. Looking at the figures more in detail, the growth just increases more: Between 15- to 18-year-olds boys, 54,5 percent more are overweight. These figures grow heavily when we look at socially weak regions, as nutrition depends highly on income and education level of the parents. On top of being overweight, there is an increased number of cases of Adipositas, the disease of obesity. It is today one of the highest chronic diseases in children and teenagers. In 2021 6 percent of all children suffered from it, while in 2011 it was only 4.5 percent. These figures are concerning for more than one reason. 

High weight at children’s age is considered a problematic trend, as this is the age where the essential building stones for adult health are being laid down. The weight that we gain at this age is often impossible to lose, when getting older and stays lifelong. In cases where we already have obesity in teenage years, later the threats for high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, chronic diseases, high cholesterol and more are giant. On top of this, life expectancy is drastically lower. Further, more and more children are being hit by Type 2 diabetes, where 80 percent of all cases are caused by obesity. The risk of suffering from diabetes, by being overweight when young, is way higher than when gaining weight later in life.  Further, the body becomes more exposed to developing autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself for example in terms of its own insulin-producing cells in the pancreatic gland. On top of this, there are many psychological effects of being overweight at this age, which are often bigger than we can imagine. Society standards these days make it probable to get bullied for not having an “ideal” body, which makes discrimination an everyday reality for many children. This often brings low self-esteem and in extreme cases anxiety and depression. Another problematic factor is that habits are easily built in children, like for example eating Nutella for breakfast, and stay life-long. 

This raises the valuable question of why we even have this problem in the first place. During the Covid Pandemic and the many lockdowns, the figures have increased highly, which has a simple reason. Homeschooling meant for many young individuals to sit in front of the screen for hours without movement. While PE class in school was canceled, many sports centers closed and team training could not take place, many kids were left feeling lonely and bored. The balance of many children was disrupted, which called for psychological effects including high frustration and stress. To compensate for this and have momentary happiness, many reached for chocolate, chips or soft drinks. This added up to the desperate attempt to pass the time, making computer games, the binge-watching of series and facetime calls a valuable activity for many. In general, talking about obesity, the standards set by the parents are also central. Income levels and education, together with their own nutrition, play a large role. Children from poor families, for instance, show four times as much obesity as children from wealthy families. This is why it is crucial that children are being brought up with the awareness for the problem and the awareness about one’s own responsibility for one’s health. However, it is really important to be careful here. Taking this to the extreme can call for more problems, like destroyed body image, eating disorders etc… It is a sensitive topic that requires a lot of empathy and patience. Nevertheless, not only the parents are at fault. Another huge factor is played by the commercialization of the confectionery industry, which leads billions of people to snack unhealthily.

 To observe how big the effect of advertisements really is, researchers have performed a study where they divide a large group of children into two groups. Both got to consume a huge lunch and are being put in front of the TV after to watch a show. While one of the group’s shows was interrupted by commercials about toys, the other one was interrupted by commercials about candy. Both have access to as many snacks as they want. During this process the snack behavior of both groups was being observed and compared; the results showed that the second group had eaten significantly more. Another result was that children with a genetic risk for being overweight, were consuming extra calories. The problem is that children do not have the maturity yet to distinguish between commercial and reality. A good example are the commercials of “Capri sun”, where the “fairy-drink” gives a child four wishes. This is perfect bait for a five-year-old. Although this does not seem dramatic by itself, it is important to state that by drinking one packet of Capri Sun, already more than half of the WHO standards for the amount of sugar that should be covered a day (25 grams), are filled. According to an observation by “foodwatch”, 90 percent of all advertisements for food for children are for foods that do not match WHO recommendations. Another study shows that children who watch fast food commercials regularly consume almost double the amount of fast food, as children that are not exposed. Regulations are therefore long overdue. In a field like this, where self-regulation is not working the government has to step up. 

This introduces a new question into the political dialogue: Should provisions that prohibit commercials of the confectionery industry be put in place? Minister of nutrition Cem Özdemir is in affirmation and wants to establish these prohibitions, regarding chocolate, chips and similar fatty foods as fast as possible. More concretely, he is regarding all foods that have high sugar, salt and fat contents. Özdemir wants to forbid those advertisements between 6am and 11pm, as this is the time that most children are awake and in front of the TV. On top of that, he wants to ban advertisements 100 meters around schools, kindergartens and playgrounds, limiting the children’s exposure to a minimum. By children, he defines under 14-year-old, as this is the age where the brain is not developed enough to make its own decisions yet. The minister is planning to control these laws by monitoring the compliance through market surveillance. For obvious reasons, the response of the German Confectionery Industry (BDSI) is less enthusiastic. They protest the new ideas by talking about the lack of evidence and the missing reasons. On the other hand, this problem has already been recognized by a lot of social and educational institutions that have begun actions in this field.  Many programmes have been put in place, regarding healthy nutrition. The confrontation of the young audience with images promoting the opposite is therefore counterproductive and the reason why none of the programmes show lasting or grand effects for now. Like many problems of this world, also this one is intensified by companies pushing for their economic interests and putting them above health. However, the moral goal of preventing obesity and not even pushing children in this direction in the first place should be at the core of our actions. If the change does not occur now, the next generation will suffer many health problems and issues caused by the current lack of action.


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