Cartoon images being used to attract children to foods high in salt, fat and sugar

Half of more than 500 food and drink products that use cartoon animations on packaging are high in fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt, a report has found.

Some products using popular TV and film characters – such as Peppa Pig Candy Bites – are 99 per cent sugar, while half of all products are so unhealthy they are not allowed to be advertised on TV during kids programmes.

The study, from Action on Sugar, found only 18 healthy food and drink products such as fruit, vegetables and water used on-pack child-friendly animations. Lidl came out as the best retailer in that respect with its Oaklands range of fruit and vegetables.

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Nutritionist Dr Kawther Hashem, campaign lead at Action on Sugar based in London, said: “It’s shocking that companies are exploiting the health of our children by using cartoon characters on their high-sugar food and drink products, particularly on chocolates and sweets, which are already hard to resist for children.

“Do we really need to entice children to want these products more and pester their parents to buy them? It is time for regulation to curtail the industry’s unhealthy habits.”

The study found that of the 434 products that use brand mascots and characters appealing to children, just over half would receive a red “high” warning label on their packaging for sugar.

Aldi’s The Juice Company Kids Smoothie Orange, Pineapple & Mango with images of animated fruit contained the most sugar per suggested serving, with 27g sugar in 200ml – equivalent to seven teaspoons. This would be more than the maximum recommended intake for children under ten years.

Popular tinned food brand Heinz uses an array of licensed characters, from Disney’s Frozen to Peppa Pig, with various health claims on packaging such as “one of your five a day” and added vitamin D. However, whilst they do not have red nutrition warning labels per 100g, a can of their pasta shapes with tomato sauce would provide a child with 0.8g salt per can, which is 40 per cent of the maximum recommended intake for a one to three-year-old, without taking into account additions such as cheese or toast.

Barbara Crowther, spokeswoman for the Children’s Food Campaign,said: “Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and all the food brands know how much power these cartoon characters have on children’s preferences. That’s why millions of pounds change hands in licensing deals each year. The food industry has had every opportunity to act, but this research clearly shows it’s not enough.”