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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 03-Jul-14 10:45:16

The junk food trap

With nearly two thirds of British adults weighing in as overweight or obese, many of us are constantly battling to curb our eating. But The Guardian's Health Editor, Sarah Boseley, thinks we're being a bit hard on ourselves - after all, aren't we pitting our willpower against the persuasive marketing techniques of supermarket giants?

Sarah Boseley

The junk food trap

Posted on: Thu 03-Jul-14 10:45:16


Lead photo

The battle against junk food marketing

My lovely grandad, tall and thin and slightly bemused, used to visit us once a week on a Saturday and my three sisters and I knew exactly what to expect - it began as four tubes of Smarties and then, when somebody said something about monotony, it became four packets of fruit pastels. Either way, we expected sweets and he was happy to provide them. I don't think my parents gave it a thought.

It's tougher these days. Children are chubbier. The weigh-ins at the beginning and end of primary school are picking up more and more overweight and obese children. It's not puppy fat, sadly, but the real thing, which could lead to health problems such as diabetes in later years. As that realisation grows, parents are becoming more conscious of what their children eat and being a gran or grandad has become a lot trickier. Of course you want to treat them, especially if you are out shopping with them. Sweets, crisps, fizzy drinks always used to do the trick nicely and without costing too much, but now they have become an issue.

The worst of it is that the kids are unlikely to understand if you suddenly turn into the bad guy who says no. Pester power is well-known. Standing at the check-out, waiting your turn with nothing to do, boredom setting in and racks of enticing, brightly-coloured sugary treats within a child's easy reach, it's likely your small grandson or granddaughter is going to start asking/pleading/beseeching or wailing for something you think they probably shouldn't have but are going to find it very hard to refuse.

Our willpower is pitted against the desire of the food industry to persuade us to eat more, and snack more - not less.

So thank you Tesco, which recently said even its small stores would no longer stock sweets and crisps at the checkout, and let's hope others follow suit. But the problem goes beyond the till. In my researches I was shocked to discover that we are all of us targeted by the food industry in subtle ways that most of us probably don't realise. It is insidious stuff. The marketing people have figured out ways to track how our eyes glance past some things on the supermarket shelves and linger on others. Food companies now pay premiums to get their products displayed on the end-shelves and other prime sites. We find ourselves unloading giant bottles of cola and multi-buy packs of crisps and biscuits that slid off those end-shelf displays into the trolley almost without our realisation.

We think we're to blame for not curbing our eating - or our children's or grandchildren's - but I came to the conclusion that we are being a bit hard on ourselves. Our willpower is pitted against the desire of the food industry to persuade us to eat more, and snack more - not less. It’s surely time for those in government to do something to help us help ourselves through taxes on junk food, subsidies for fruit and veg and tighter marketing rules. And then caring grandparents needn’t be cast as ogres after all.

Sarah's book, The Shape We're In, is available now and is published by Guardian Faber.

By Sarah Boseley

Twitter: @sarahboseley

thatbags Thu 03-Jul-14 12:17:58

My mother taught me a simple and effective rule to prevent the "I want" shenanigans at checkouts: NEVER buy kids treats at supermarkets when shopping with them. It works extremely well.

It doesn't mean you don't give them treats, only that buying them "on demand" at a supermarket checkout is something you just don't do.

I don't want to be protected from advertising, thank you. There is too much nanny-statism about already and I'm quite capable of ignoring ads for rubbish (food or otherwise) without state help. Government interference on this score would be extremely patronising.

Nor do I fear my grandchildren thinking I'm an ogre. That's just silly. All one needs to do is tell them one needs to ask their parents' permission.

If my own kids were hungry when out and we weren't all getting a snack, I would buy them a bread roll or a banana. If they didn't want a roll or a banana they weren't hungry.

On holiday is different, of course. Then ice-creams, etc, are fine.

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 03-Jul-14 16:41:54

I think it is totally unfair of Gransnet to put up that pic of that lovely white icing covered doughnut with those beautiful sprinkles on it!

(gasps for breath)

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 03-Jul-14 16:44:41

All they talk about at HQ is cake, cake, and flipping more cake! Tescos have got nothing on em!

Downright cruel. hmm

Ana Thu 03-Jul-14 16:45:57

I think it looks revolting and not the least bit tempting!

I do feel as though we've been discussing this topic on various threads for a long time now - we'd just be repeating ourselves...

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 03-Jul-14 16:50:06

"taxes on junk food"

"And then caring grandparents needn’t be cast as ogres after all"

That would actually stop you buying Freddos for the grandkids? shock Would n't stop me.

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 03-Jul-14 16:51:57

Yes, well. Perhaps you're not on a diet Ana. hmm

^ Some^ of us are. [sniff]

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 03-Jul-14 16:56:05

Eating nice things is the greatest pleasure in life. Bar none.

Blogger has got a point. Government should do something. Not more taxes though. Perhaps ban all further research into making more and more tempting puddings.

Anne58 Thu 03-Jul-14 16:59:23

Oh heck jingl you've just reminded me that I've got a delicious looking Italian dessert in the fridge that I inadvertently picked up in Lidl earlier today!

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 03-Jul-14 17:05:48


FlicketyB Thu 03-Jul-14 19:49:35

I am absolutely with Thatbags. People just use the 'power' of retail advertising to excuse their self indulgence. Fortunately I am impervious to the usual sweet things that people are tempted to buy as I do not have a sweet tooth, but I do have a weakness for cheese. As this is rarely on special offer I know that if I buy or eat a lot of cheese it is because I am greedy and weak-willed, I cannot blame the retailers.

Like Thatbags, I never ever throughout my children's childhood bought them sweets in a supermarket. Similarly biscuits, cakes and fizzy drinks were a weekend treat. I am nothing exceptional, my DDiL is bringing DGC up the same way. Sweets are a treat, they are quite used to drinking milk and water as fizzy drinks are also a treat.

It is the same with BOGOFs. If you do not need the product do not buy it. Nobody is forcing you to take two when you need one. You have free will and nowadays we all know the techniques the retailers use to encourage us to buy, so shop with a list and do not buy extras.

What the government could do is muzzle itself and all those pompous medical advisors that constantly preach to us about what we should and should not eat, describe foods as 'good' or 'bad' and generally destroy people's normal eating habits. At the same time banning BOGOFs. If for 5 years no government or medical body ever said anything about food and diet I am sure more people would start eating normally.

Anne58 Thu 03-Jul-14 19:55:00

jimgl holding out so far, but it's just a matter of time..........

Of course you do realise that it's all in the name of research? I feel obliged to test products before i can recommend them? {halo emoticon}

Stansgran Thu 03-Jul-14 20:00:57

I used to write a rant usually in purple or green felt tip to M&S every time there was a child screaming at the checkout sweetie rack. In Durham it was very squashed and the smallest child could reach out and grab something.parent would put it back child screamed. I always said write in and complain. I am going to. They ( manager) eventually invited me for tea and biscuits to discuss but nothing happened.

Anne58 Thu 03-Jul-14 20:35:15

Yet again I'm posting re Lidl! They have dedicated "healthy" checkouts, where the goods available are seeds and nuts, small packs of dried fruit etc.

These are clearly labelled, but today when I had to go to a till that wasn't labelled as "healthy" the non fruit/seeds options seemed to be pretty racy, as in Scottish Oatcakes and various herbal teas! Where will it end!

rosequartz Thu 03-Jul-14 20:48:51

Stansgran, the sweeties were often at pushchair height. I came home once to notice DD2, aged about 18 months, clutching a tube of Smarties in her hand. Should I have taken them back? I didn't, the store should not put them at a tempting height for little children, although I did tell her off, but not sure that she understood at the time.

Is it more to do with lack of exercise? We ate sweets and chocolate, (but not junk food) when we were young and were not fat (then). We walked miles to school - did not have a car anyway, played outside all the time, ran, skipped, cycled, climbed trees (and lamp-posts - well some of us, it was always my ambition but I never quite managed it). We were always active as there were no computers and not much television apart from Bill and Ben and Muffin the Mule.

FlicketyB Fri 04-Jul-14 16:44:16

Phoenix your description of Lidl encapsulates all I find so distorted in our attitudes to food. Why are packets of seeds and nuts healthy? A significant number of people have seed and nut allergies and dried fruit is as full of sugar as any sweets.

Its a parent's responsibility not to buy children unnecessary sweets. Just say 'no' every single time without exception and the pester and asking problem soon goes away.

TriciaF Fri 04-Jul-14 16:55:15

What's on offer in the breakfast cereal shelves of UK supermarkets? This is a staple that most families buy and eat.
Here (France) you have difficulty finding a cereal without added sugar, honey, chocolate, muesli crunch etc. and they're often more expensive.

NfkDumpling Fri 04-Jul-14 16:55:40

Tesco have announced this 'No sweets at the checkout' thing as if it's new - but I remember when my kids were young (about 30 years ago) Sainsburys did the same thing and the other big supermarkets all jumped on the bandwagon. It used to feel strange going into a small independent and having to run the sweetie gauntlet. Didn't last long though before good-for-you (fruit and nut bars) reappeared and then back to normal with horrid cheap stuff. Any body else remember it? Or was it just a local trial.

janeainsworth Fri 04-Jul-14 21:30:30

Quote:" We find ourselves unloading giant bottles of cola and multi-buy packs of crisps and biscuits that slid off those end-shelf displays into the trolley almost without our realisation. "

Is that the 'royal' we? Sarah Boseley should speak for herself.

I never buy cola, crisps or biscuits.

I was perfectly capable of saying 'no' to my children, as are my DD and DDiL to my grandchildren.

It really quite worries me that someone from a reputable newspaper like the Guardian should seriously suggest that increasing rates of obesity in this country are due to the machinations of the marketing departments of the food manufacturers and supermarkets.

Ana Fri 04-Jul-14 21:34:28

It's the DM effect...! (Obviously sells newspapers)

I agree that it's up to parents to say 'no'. I did it and so does DD - some don't seem able to, though.

Nelliemoser Fri 04-Jul-14 22:18:19

NFKDumpling Yes it has been tried before, as you described and Supermarkets went back on it. I expect they lost too much money or the sweet manufacturers put pressure on them to start again.

What really annoys me is that the big stores have shelves and products labled as being for "snacking". Which is probably a huge part of the obesity problem.

sunseeker Sat 05-Jul-14 09:43:49

I do buy crisps (my weakness) but never more than one pack of 6 (lasts me the week) but why are all the BOGOF offers on things like, crisps, biscuits and cakes. How often have you gone into a supermarket and found a BOGOF offer on fruit, yes I know you can see them occasionally but not as often.

FlicketyB Sat 05-Jul-14 10:37:57

I have just reread the blog. It assumes that Grandparents consistently buy their grandchildren sweet treats (and the sub-text; even though parents do not want them to) Whose grandparents is she talking about?

My children were not, and my grandchildren are not, automatically 'treated' when they come shopping with me, in fact on most occasions it doesn't even occur to me to do it and they do not ask because their parents do not buy them treats when they shop either.

When I do treat my grandchildren, my treats are invariably in printed form, books and magazines. I treated DGD to a book at her school fete a week ago. Mind you when I treat myself it is also invariably a magazine or book, certainly rarely anything edible.

Ana Sat 05-Jul-14 10:44:04

I've just realised that my local branch of Tesco doesn't have checkout racks at all! Asda certainly does, though.

HollyDaze Sat 05-Jul-14 11:35:20

Sweets, cakes and crisps have always been on sale in supermarkets and producers have always tried to persuade us to buy their products - ergo: if children are not fatter than they used to be, something else has come into play.

My children always had a bag of '10p mix' of sweets on the way home from school, we would also make coconut ice, toffee apples, fudge, mint and fruit creams, Chelsea buns, iced fairy cakes, etc., and yet both of my children were stick thin and very sporty - therein lies the clue. They have also never had a filling let alone a tooth removed (ditto with my grandchildren).

Maybe if children spend less time in front of the computer or tv and became more active, junk food wouldn't have the impact that it is now having. Our lives have been structured to be more sedentary so why is the resultant weight gain a 'surprise'?