If you are to believe the messages from Ofcom and the FSA, you would think the child in this picture doesn't know the nutritional difference between an apple and a chocolate cake.

Rising levels of childhood obesity have been blamed, almost exclusively, on the volume of 'junk foods' being advertised to children on TV, citing's children's pliant vulnerability to these messages. And, as well as targeting young children, who are susceptible to advertising messages of all kinds, Ofcom recently opted to 'protect' children up to the age of 16 from advertisers of these HFSS (high fat salt sugar) foods.

But a report commissioned by The Grocer shows that 11 to 16-year-olds are much more savvy about food and healthy eating than they are given credit for. In fact more than one third believe they have a better understanding of healthy eating than their parents.

The vast majority of kids recognised burgers (94%), chips (92%), crisps (89%), fizzy drinks (88%) and pizza (85%) as junk food. The majority also put chicken nuggets (81%), oven chips (61%), chocolate milk (58%) and diet colas (55%) - all products passed by the FSA's controversial Nutrient Profiling Model - in the same bracket. Only a tiny fraction, however, considered as unhealthy raisins (2%), bran flakes (2%), low-fat margarine (6%), honey (11%), Cheddar cheese (15%) - all products that the NPM has banned from advertising to children.

According to the survey by mobile and internet market research firm Q Research, 91% of children from 11 to 20 years old believe they know what they need to eat - and what they need not to eat - to have a healthy diet, and are making changes to the foods they eat: 69% are drinking more water, 65% are eating more fruit, 58% are drinking fewer fizzy drinks and 53% are eating more vegetables (see fig 2). Only 9% say they don't care about healthy eating.

"This is a great indication of how the youth market is picking up on positive health messages," says Q Research director Rikjan Scott. "As people get older they learn more, but children as young as 11 have a good knowledge of healthy eating."

These are encouraging figures, agrees Claire Williamson, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. "They indicate that the majority of 11 to 20-year-olds seem to be aware of healthy eating guidelines." But while 91% know what they need to do to have a healthy diet, 65% admit they don't always manage this and Williamson believes "many children need more help achieving this".

This is borne out by closer examination of the difference between the consumption patterns of the 26% who have changed for the better and the 65% who don't always manage this. While the weaker-willed group have successfully cut down on fizzy drinks, and been quite successful when it comes to eating more fruit and eating less chocolates/sweets, it seems they struggle most when it comes to eating more vegetables, and also cutting out fatty foods in general, and specifically chips. "This is a problem that almost every parent and dinner lady can attest to," says Williamson.

Although there are plenty of encouraging signs for the government in this report, one of the most worrying findings concerns the levels of kids' exercise, which are still well below government targets (see fig 7).

The survey also shows that those who are the least bothered about a healthy diet are also the least likely to exercise (see fig 8). Although this group represents only 9% of our sample, this is a statistically significant minority, says Q Research chairman Liz Nelson. "Obesity now affects 25% of 11 to 15-year-olds. This group is the most important one for the government to target."

"The DoH recommends that young people should take at least one hour of physical activity every day," says Williamson. "So it is disappointing to see that only 16% of 11 to 15-year-olds and 12% of 16 to 20-year-olds are achieving the recommended levels of activity, with 9% taking no regular exercise at all. Much more needs to be done to encourage children to take regular exercise."

Exercise is a much more pressing issue for the government to act on even than a more balanced diet, believes Stephanie French, MD of marketing and strategy consultancy Nutrition Directions. "The Ofcom ban focuses on the wrong area because all the evidence shows that limiting adverts will have such a small effect. The government should be concentrating on exercise, which is much more likely to have an impact on health." French adds that school leavers are particularly vulnerable. "With no organised sport as well as an increase in other temptations, older teenagers need to be made more aware of the need for regular exercise."

As to diet, a number of experts are concerned that the government's efforts to halt obesity may even be undermined by the Ofcom 'junk food' ban. "Children are aware of health and are making healthier changes to their diets," says Dr Verner Wheelock, professor of food science at Nottingham University, "but the anomalies of NPM mean children may become confused".

"The major finding of the survey is a mismatch between what people think is junk and what is being labelled as such," says Nelson. "The NPM doesn't properly connect with young people." By using the 100g portion as the basis for nutrient profiling, the FSA is patronising children, she argues. "There is no attempt to get kids to identify the aspects of healthy eating they may not know about."

It is clear from our survey that children want to be informed about the healthy qualities of foods. They are also more responsive to health messages than government would like us to believe, with almost 80% of respondents saying they want advertisers to tell them if food is healthy or not, and 58% more likely to buy a product advertised in this way (see fig 5).

"If a product is advertised for its health credentials, children are telling us they will buy it," says Scott. "And the majority of children believe the obligation to talk about healthy food lies with the advertisers. But the FSA's model stipulates that producers of certain products are not allowed to present their case even if their products are nutritious. The ban is targeted at programming to the under-16s but the effects will have a wider impact, damaging the reputation of brands and categories by not letting them talk about their healthy nutrients."

Kellogg's communications director Chris Wermann echoes this point. "Kids say they want to be told what is healthy. If a product is high in fat, salt or sugar it shouldn't mean that a company can't tell people about its healthy credentials, especially in the context of a single portion. The survey shows that children want advertisers to tell them if a food is healthy and we should be educating them about what makes a good diet, not hiding foods from them."

It is this failure to harness the power of big brands and food suppliers, to work, in the words of the 2004 White Paper, "with the grain" of the industry, that has caused such friction. Indeed, with our survey confirming that TV is second only to school (see fig 6) as a source of information about health and nutrition, the model is failing even to harness TV itself, adds French.

"More than two-thirds of children learn about food from TV so the government should be ensuring it is healthy foods that are advertised and not foods that are neither healthy or not. If children thought that only foods advertised to them were healthy, this could affect their diet. If we focused less on banning negatives and more on promoting positives, children's diet and their knowledge of food would be enhanced still further."n

?Junk Food and Healthy Eating: A Child's Perspective is based on a survey of 700 11- to 20-year-olds using mobile phones and the internet. For more information or a copy of the full survey ­contact 0207 710 5432 or visit www.Q-blue.comFigure 1: Which of the following foods do kids consider 'junk'?

The foods in the left-hand panel get the green light from Ofcom thanks to the absurd Nutrient Profiling Model developed by the Food Standards Agency, while the foods in the right-hand panel are banned from advertising on TV. Fortunately, kids know better and can even distinguish between chips (92%) and oven chips (61%).

Chicken Nuggets


Oven chips


Chocolate milk


Diet cola


Chicken korma


White bread




Cheddar cheese




Low-fat margarine


Bran flakes



2%young people are responding to health messages

Figure 2: In the past year have you made any changes to your diet?

Children are making positive changes to their diet, but more needs to be done to encourage them to reduce their fat and salt intake.

Drink more water69 %

Eat more fruit65 %

Drink fewer fizzy drinks58 %

Eat more vegetables53 %

Eat less chocolate/sweets52 %

Eat less fatty food49 %

Eat fewer chips42 %

Eat less salt34 %

Figure 3: In the past year have you made any of these changes? (by attitude to healthy diet)

Cutting out fizzy drinks is not a problem for kids who struggle to manage a healthy diet, and eating less sweets and more fruit is relatively easy. The biggest problems for this group are vegetables, fatty foods and chips.


I know what I need to do to have a healthy diet and am changing for the better

I know what I need to do for a healthy diet, but I don't always manage this

I am not really bothered about healthy eating

Drink more water80 %

67 %

47 %

Eat more fruit77 %

66 %

26 %

Eat more vegetables70 %

49 %

24 %

Drink fewer fizzy drinks63 %

62 %

20 %

Eat less fatty foods63 %

46 %

24 %

Eat less chocolate/sweets61 %

51 %

25 %

Eat fewer chips55 %

39 %

19 %

Eat less salt45 %

33 %

15 %

Advertising of healthy food has an impact

Figure 6: Where have you learnt about foods that are part of a healthy diet?

TV can and does play a positive role in teaching children about healthy food and is just as important to children as parental guidance

At school79 %

From TV65 %

At home65 %

From books and magazines48 %

From friends26 %

Other7 %are exercise and a healthy diet linked?

Figure 7: In an average week, how many hours do you spend taking exercise or sport?

Only 16% of 11 to 15-year-olds and 12% of 16 to 20-year-olds are doing the seven hours of weekly exercise recommended by the Department of Health. The government needs to focus more attention on exercise if it is to fight obesity


11 - 15 years of age

16 - 20 years of age

I don't do any sport or exercise1 %

9 %

1 hour a week or less9 %

20 %

2 hours a week22 %

21 %

3 hours a week17 %

12 %

4 hours a week15 %

10 %

5 hours a week11 %

10 %

6 hours a week8 %

5 %

7 hours a week or more16 %

12 %

Figure 8: Hours spent exercising per week

Kids eating the least healthy diet also do the least exercise

I know what I need to do to have a healthy diet and am changing for the better3.6 h

I know what I need to do to have a healthy diet, but I don't always manage this3.4 h

I am not really bothered about healthy eating3.3 h