School dinners have had their fair share of scrutiny since the days of turkey twizzlers, semolina puddings, and chips with everything. However, it now turns out much of the damage to children’s health is done even before they reach the school gates.
Breakfasts consisting of sugary cereals and sweetened spreads mean kids are getting half their daily allowance of sugar before they leave the house, Public Health England (PHE) revealed this week.
Children are eating more than three sugar cubes, on average, at breakfast alone, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Even more shockingly, the survey showed that most parents (84%) are unaware they’re handing their kids an unhealthy breakfast every morning.
PHE aims to help fix the problem with an app showing the sugar content of food and drink to guide parents. But the onus is also on brands, particularly those at the wrong end of the obesity debate, to act now to help parents and kids.
The creators of foods contributing to obesity and tooth decay in the nation’s children need to stop sugar-coating the truth for consumers and fundamentally rewire their marketing mix.
It starts with upturning the five Ps of marketing: product, price, promotion, place and packaging.
In terms of product, these companies need to innovate away from their sugar laden offerings and look instead to coming up with genuinely healthy food brands.
Price is another key factor - stop discounting sugary, unhealthy foods and hounding consumers with offers and promotions.
When it comes to promotion and advertising, kids also need to feel that by choosing healthy food they are not missing out, but instead making the best possible decision.
We need to find ways to make good food always seem like the more exciting option and stop making unhealthy food so enticing – armed as it is with its dazzling packaging, competitions, free toys and giveaways.
Junk foods often sit in all their technicolour glory in a prominent place in the supermarket and prove far too much of a temptation for children. Perhaps imposing the same restrictions as cigarettes in terms of placement is a rather extreme a solution, but more must be done to limit their lure in the shopping aisles.
Companies should also reassess how they communicate ingredients on food packaging. In his book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, Michael Pollan advises: "Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce."
Brands not only need to help adults make informed choices about what they are buying, they should be talking to children in a language they understand.
Kids need to know that the closer a product is to nature, the healthier it is for them. Perhaps the industry could come up with a kid-friendly kite mark showing clearly just how near or how far from containing only natural, healthy ingredients the product is.
I would add another "p" to the marketing mix – purpose. If the big food corporations, from Nestle to General Mills, accept that the future success of their business hinges on doing good, then they should be proactive about changing for the better rather than being forced into it by regulation.
Food brands need to address the fundamentals of their marketing now to empower adults to make the right choices, rebuild trust and refocus on product innovation. Only then can they be assured their businesses will still be around in the next twenty years.
Zaid Al-Zaidy is chief executive of Above & Beyond