It’s time for young people to reshape the food system

By Ansiah Raman

Food and drink companies influence us for more than we realise


At 7am, my siblings and I wake up for school. When the usual slab of bread with butter for breakfast gets boring, we have cereal instead. It’s a cereal my little sister cried for in the shop because she liked the cartoon characters. It reminds me of when I spoke to Nestle through my campaigning with Bite Back 2030 about how I feel this packaging targets young children, with their response being that “the vast majority of people who eat Curiously Cinnamon are adults”. I find that hard to believe as it has a cartoon rabbit plastered on the front of the box.


My morning also starts with a bombardment of junk food marketing. This includes phone notifications, such as an UberEats email about the latest offers available for fast food shops within a short walking distance from my home; my Spotify playlist interrupted by a Kit Kat ad. On Twitter, I see junk food ads made by popular influencers for McDonald’s. Meanwhile my brothers are playing games where junk food is marketed with mouth-watering images. It’s unnerving to see how far food companies will go to prioritise profit over health. And I’ll bet many other peoples’ mornings look very similar to this, but they may not realise it.


How can we as individuals be expected to make healthier choices when we’re up against a flood of unhealthy food, in an environment where we’re bombarded by junk food marketing? A number of governments across the world, such as the USA have taken baby steps to tackle our epidemic of diet-related illnesses – by introducing sugar taxes and acknowledging the prevalence of child obesity - but the food and drink industry continue to deploy an extraordinary number of tactics, especially online.


The world must act. Now it’s not impossible. Recently, after extensive campaigning I was involved in with several other youth activists, the UK Government announced on 11th May 2021 that they were implementing a total ban of online advertising of unhealthy foods, making the decision to finally prioritise child health. This means that new legislation will prevent companies like McDonald’s and Domino’s from advertising junk food online, paving the way for healthier options to be put in the spotlight instead. This world-leading protective public health measure sets a precedent for other countries to follow.


My friend Dev commissioned a report to look into the impact on junk food marketing on young people. Shockingly, it found that that more than twice as many 13-17 year olds in the 10 least affluent constituencies in the UK have been marked by Facebook and Instagram as having an interest in fast food and unhealthy food products (without their explicit consent), than in the 10 richest constituencies. This means marketing makes inequalities worse. So why are we so hesitant to end junk food marketing online, when such a policy will lead to UK children eating the equivalent of 62 million fewer doughnuts every year? Imagine what that figure would look like in other countries.


Right now, the floodgates of unhealthy food options are wide open, and these options are overwhelming children and families: young people are constantly getting emails promoting junk food; being targeted by junk food on social media and influencers who are paid to encourage us to indulge; having access to vending machines piled high with junk food and fast food shops on every high street; seeing the buy-one-get-one free deals on junk food in every supermarket.


Decision makers need - and want - to hear from young people like you and me!


I know that many young people rely on junk food to fulfil their personal needs. To feel less hungry, to save money and to maintain friendships as food can be a talking point when we socialise. Don’t let people fool you into believing that it’s your fault for choosing junk food more, because who can blame you for making such choices? You’re always being targeted by large junk food companies. And if I still haven’t convinced you, check out this podcast I feature in produced by my friend Lanre, where he speaks to young people about their own experiences of being bombarded with junk food ads: https://open.spotify.com/episode/46RoW4fZicf6RYzbop5jQj?si=w38jOth0Q1e1dIjw7_-TBw


So let’s take a stand! As young people, we can achieve real change. Just recently, following campaigning I was even involved in, Tesco committed to increase the proportion of their sales that come from healthy food, and to make products healthier. And as a result of all our campaigning to end junk food marketing at Bite Back 2030, some of my fellow Youth Board met with Jo Churchill, the Minister for Public Health in the UK, who said it was “so powerful to hear about their experiences.”


Decision makers need to keep hearing about our experiences as young people, and to close the curtain on junk food ads aimed at children. We need to push unhealthy food out of the spotlight because with advertising and marketing nowadays, it takes up far too much room in our minds. We can improve all children’s health in the world by working upstream to improve the flow of affordable, healthy food options and placing healthier food in the spotlight for once.


If my article has resonated with you, please take action! You can email your world leaders, create campaigns similar to the one we established in the UK or even start small with schools.


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