Katherine Rich: Public money spent on poor research

5 October 2017

In the nearly nine years I’ve led the Food and Grocery Council, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the quality of some academic research being published about the food industry. I’m sure we’d get better outcomes if there were clearer lines between what’s good science that adds value to solving a societal issue, and what’s activist research designed to be part of a campaign.

So often there’s a glaring gap between what the research says and the strong-language press statements designed to grab a headline.  

One example last year claimed that 66 per cent of advertising during children’s after-school TV viewing was for unhealthy food. The problem was the data was from 2007, when the advertisements were “videotaped”! Useful at the time but hardly applicable nine years later.

Another, on advertising to children in magazines, created the impression food companies were recklessly targeting kids. The fine print revealed the academics were counting Woman’s Day, Woman’s Weekly, and even Sky Television’s Skywatch as children’s media! 

Despite FGC pointing out those flaws, the misleading claims keep coming.

The latest is a study by Otago and Auckland university researchers that had 168 children wear cameras around their necks to record what they saw. The researchers claimed the data showed the children were “frequently exposed, across multiple settings, to marketing of non-core foods not recommended to be marketed to children”.

They said the way to reduce this exposure was by taxing sugary drinks and regulating ‘junk’ food marketing and what foods can be sold in schools.

But a close look at the study shows it provides very little data useful to inform policy or encourage change to reduce childhood obesity rates. 

For a start, they counted as advertisements the number of food wrappers the children saw! It’s hardly surprising they were the main images captured by the cameras, but that’s deliberately misleading people into believing packaging exists solely for marketing purposes, and that’s completely untrue.

The main purpose of food packaging is to provide a safe product, ensuring it’s fit for consumption. It also provides vital safety information, such as allergen labelling and additional mandatory nutrition labelling. 

I think most would agree the mere existence of a product on a store shelf is not an advertisement. 

The study also uses as a basis for its conclusions that 52% per cent of “exposures” of non-core (not every-day) food occurred at school or at home. Most would agree that’s not ‘marketing’, and to request government regulation on it makes no sense. Governments can’t regulate kitchen cupboards.

Most people would sensibly ask "did the company (or distributor) place that product there?" If the answer is “no”, then it’s not commonly viewed as marketing. We can't go around asking the government to regulate the behaviour of our neighbours for fear our children might see them having a party in the back yard with undesirable food and drink items! 

In addition, the study’s use of terms such as 'core' and 'non-core' foods is not aligned with New Zealand’s national dietary guidelines. Calls for healthy eating advice or government interventions are strongly encouraged to align with dietary guidelines, which place high emphasis on whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, cereals, meat, fish, and dairy. Packaged foods are just one part of a diet. Yet this paper didn’t consider these foods at all. 

Where was the analysis of exposure to all foods? How many times did the children see others eat a salad sandwich? If a child eats a banana in the playground should we not be applauding the clever marketing of the fresh produce industry? In the home, did the camera glimpse a fruit bowl, or milk in the fridge door – if so, how many times? 

This is where this study is unbalanced. These values would give real results and true context to the issue of children's exposure to foods, and would enable more accurate assessment of problem areas, which would inform more effective solutions for obesity.

It’s disappointing to see public money supporting research that uses poor and inconsistent definitions. It leads to results that don't clearly outline or quantify problem areas that can be targeted for effective change. 

(as published in FMCG Business magazine, September 2017)