Pushing unhealthy food choices upon children is not okay - even if health minister Will Quince says it is

In grocery stores across Britain you will find some seriously unhealthy foods being marketed directly at children - and health minister Will Quince thinks that's okay.

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In grocery stores the length and breadth of Britain you will find some seriously unhealthy foods being marketed directly at children - so quite understandably, our health minister has had something to say about that.

Perhaps surprisingly though, what Will Quince had to say on the matter was, he didn’t see this as a problem. Parents must simply ‘educate their children’ he says - has he ever been to a supermarket with a child in tow? Something tells me he has not.

Dr Kawther Hashem, campaign lead at health group, Action on Sugar, said: “It’s ludicrous that whilst breakfast cereals and yogurts celebrate the largest reductions in sugars during the Sugar Reduction Programme, those same products with child-appealing packaging still have excessive amounts of sugars, unsuitable for regular intake by children.

“Given the soaring numbers of under-18s suffering weight-related health problems and tooth decay being the leading cause of child hospitalisation, now is the time for companies to be forced to remove child-appealing packaging from products that are misleading parents and making our children unhealthy and sick.”

Mr Quince, on the other hand, believes this simple change, which surely can do no harm, other than perhaps inhibiting the sales of sugar-filled rubbish to young people, is too “nanny state” for his liking, describing plain packaging as “certainly a step too far”.

Speaking to Times Radio on Tuesday, Mr Quince said: “I’m not in favour of those kinds of nanny state interventions because as a parent, it’s my responsibility to educate my child as to what is and isn’t appropriate for daily consumption and as a treat.

“I like Krave cereal as much as the next person… it’s very nice, but would I have it every day? No, because I know the implications of that. I want to educate my children about that.”

While adults addicted to nicotine are protected from the tobacco companies’ propaganda, with packaging deliberately festooned with imagery meant to put you off the product, children are expected to make good health choices without any such support. They must not only resist the sweet treat, but they must also turn their backs on brightly coloured packaging adorned with cartoon characters including familiar favourites such as Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol.

To put mine and Mr Quince’s differing theories to the test I enlisted the help of my own children. Could we expect children who fully understand what constitutes a ‘good food’ and a ‘bad food’ to choose the healthier option.

We do eat a lot of fruit and veg in our house so Mr Quince may have been given an unfair advantage here but let’s put that to one side for the time being.

First up I ran through a little sorting game with the children (thanks Twinkl) which saw them grouping food stuffs into good and bad. Most foods were pretty obvious even to them - oranges are ‘good’, chocolate ‘bad’, for example. We discussed the ‘grey areas’ such as bread and yogurts and I explained why they don’t make for the healthiest of choices.

Fresh with this knowledge in their bright little minds, we hit the supermarket. Other than asking them to find something for lunch, something for breakfast, a drink and a few snacks, the specific choices were their own.

Unsurprisingly to most parents, although perhaps quite possibly a revelation for Mr Quince, the youngsters did not make the best choices. Snacks came in the form of chocolate cake bears, yogurts with smiling strawberry faces and sweets unironically described by my daughter as “fruit and veg Tic Tacs”.

In the drinks aisle they went for the child-sized bottles of squash rather than the water they had, less than an hour earlier, put in the ‘good’ group during the game. Similarly, for breakfast they went for miniature cereal boxes multipack including the likes of chocolatey Coco Pops and Rice Krispies Multigrain Shapes, which sound much better than they actually are.

We tested out what impact colourful packaging had on children's food choicesWe tested out what impact colourful packaging had on children's food choices
We tested out what impact colourful packaging had on children's food choices

To give them their due, they did also choose some actual fruit but fruit which is also quite high in naturally occurring sugars.

So, it turns out, even in households where adults and children alike are ‘educated’ on healthy food choices, young brains are going to be swayed by that bright packaging and those happy characters enticing them to make all the wrong choices when it comes to eating well.

So come on Mr Quince, let’s stop asking more of children than we do of adults and give them a fighting chance when heading into the supermarket. Let the state ‘nanny’ our children just a little bit and put their best interests at the heart of policy making, not the big businesses trying to make a fast buck from them.