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Health Canada has plans to ban the marketing of junk food to kids, but here’s what to do while you’re waiting for regulations to come into effect.

Have you ever been surprised to hear your kids sing a cereal commercial’s jingle, quote a fast food restaurant’s tagline, or ask for a specific junk food you’ve never bought before? Kids are bombarded with marketing at every turn. In fact, Heart & Stroke reports that 90 percent of the ads they see on TV are for junk food.

Not surprisingly, kids who are exposed to this massive quantity of ads have an increased calorie intake and a preference for processed foods. A recent study funded by Heart & Stroke found that kids get 57 percent of their daily calories from processed foods like pop, chips, sweet cereals and French fries—the same foods on heavy rotation on kids’ TV stations and websites.

That’s why Health Canada is stepping in to help regulate junk food marketing directed at kids. Last week, the government organization released the consultation report “Restricting Marketing of Unhealthy Food and Beverages to Children in Canada,” which included input from experts, health professionals, food industry representatives, non-profit organizations and members of the public.  Health Canada is moving forward and developing regulations that will restrict companies from marketing junk food to children age 13 and under. While the guidelines have not yet been drafted, the new legislation could restrict ads for foods with salt, sugar and saturated fats during TV slots that attract young viewers (such as 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.). It could also restrict marketing through apps, websites and advert games (video games that advertise a certain product).

Ads are everywhere
“Kids are reached by every form of advertising that exists, even some that parents aren’t aware of,” says Matthew Johnson, director of education at Media Smarts, a Canadian not-for-profit charitable organization that provides education about digital and media literacy. He explains that every bit of branded content, from soda vending machines to product placement in video games and movies, function as ads. Each food package is an ad too, and some carry codes for apps or websites where kids can play advergames.

“The food industry puts billions of dollars into marketing because they know it works,” says Manuel Arango, director of health policy and advocacy for Heart & Stroke. Marketing executives strategize with researchers and psychologists to collect in-depth knowledge on how to entice your kids to buy or eat more of a product.

We’ll know more about Health Canada’s regulations next year and they’re expected to come into force in 2020, but if you want to make your kids less vulnerable to junk food marketing now, try teaching them to think critically about the ads they see. Here’s how.

  • Teach kids that it’s someone’s job to create ads in order to sell products. As you watch TV together, ask them if the ads are for something that they really need. Help your children understand the main goal of advertising: for companies to make money by getting you to buy their product. Don’t be surprised if they spend the next few days pointing out what every ad is trying to sell them. It’s an exciting discovery!
  • Explain that marketing isn’t always honest and encourage them to question things. For example, show them the photo of real fruit on a package of candy, and talk about how there’s not really fruit in the package.
  • Ask them why they think Darth Vader or Dora the Explorer is on a food package. Explain that media uses recognizable characters and desirable experiences (trips! ice cream parties! toys!) to entice kids.
  • Practice co-viewing with your kids and ask them questions about what they see on a show or game. What is being promoted? Is it honest or exaggerated? Is the ad making claims that are true or false? For example, if the ad says “This cereal is part of a balanced breakfast,” ask them what the other parts of the breakfast could be. Point out that the milk and fruit are actually the balanced part of breakfast, and the cereal is an ultra-processed food.
  • Avoid advergames—which can include apps or websites designed by fast food restaurants or companies that make pop, treats or cereals. They simply entice your child to crave junk food.
  • When kids are getting their screen time, which should be limited to just one hour a day, choose commercial-free TV (such as Netflix) or fast-forward through commercials with your PVR.

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