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The Milkybar 'Kid': Nestlé, childhood obesity and the regulation of advertising of high sugar and fat ultra-processed products

Key Points

  • Suggests that Advertising Standards Authority and Food Standards Scotland play a limited role in consumer protection and information, although we believe that such regulatory bodies remain important avenues to exert influence on producers of ultra-processed foods.

  • Suggests the ultra-processed food industry continues to get away with misleading and child-targeted advertising, whilst the regulatory authorities themselves admit the 'frustration' that could result from the patchy impact of voluntary industry codes of practice on food labelling.

  • Proposes that pressure on both manufacturers and regulatory authorities could usefully come from dental professionals and their patients, alongside support for new legislative measures to reduce the promotion and consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Abstract

We report a case of public health activism which began as a formal complaint lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on 24 June 2017 against Nestlé, a major global ultra-processed food manufacturer. A television advertisement for Nestlé's Milkybar included the copy 'It's the simple things that are the most fun. That's why milk is now our No.1 ingredient'. However, the main nutritional constituent in Milkybar is sugar at 53%, and therefore we complained to the ASA that the advert was misleading. The ASA rejected the complaint, referring to the manufacturer's claim that milk, at 37%, was the biggest ingredient, rather than constituent, and therefore the advert was not misleading. We countered that the largest ingredient was not milk, but milk powder, a processed food, the lactose from which contributes to the 53% free sugars in the product. This argument was also rejected by the ASA, as were later complaints to Food Standards Scotland (FSS) regarding Nestlé's failure to provide front of pack colour coded nutritional information despite their being party to a voluntary agreement to do so in 2013. An enquiry to Nestlé was met by a response citing the voluntary nature of the nutritional information agreement, and lack of space on packs. A final email to Nestlé claiming a breach of their corporate business principles was rejected. We conclude that the ASA's decision not to investigate our case fully represents a failure to protect the public from misleading advertising, undermining the ASA's own role and campaign to regulate advertising that may contribute to childhood obesity and dental caries. FSS appears relaxed about Nestlé's lack of compliance with the nutritional information agreement. Despite this experience, we recommend that complaints to regulatory bodies such as the ASA and FSS continue, if only to expose the weakness of current regulations.

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Figure 1: UK confectionery: % sugar, saturated and other fats, 2017.
Figure 2

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Correspondence to S. Turner.

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Colwyn Jones reports he is a member of the British Dental Association, the European Association of Dental Public Health, the British Association for the Study of Community Dentistry and Obesity Action Scotland. Stephen Turner reports no conflicts of interest.

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Turner, S., Jones, C. The Milkybar 'Kid': Nestlé, childhood obesity and the regulation of advertising of high sugar and fat ultra-processed products. Br Dent J 225, 771–776 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.bdj.2018.868

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