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Canadian kids bombarded with more than 25M junk food and drink ads online every year

WATCH: Food and beverage industry targets children with ads. Allison Vuchnich reports.

Kellogg’s Pop Tarts, McDonald’s Happy Meals, and Kraft Lunchables. While your kids surf the Internet, they’re bombarded by millions of food ads and over 90 per cent are for processed fare and drinks packed with sugar, fat and salt, according to new Canadian research.

In an alarming study commissioned by Heart & Stroke, scientists out of the University of Ottawa say that in a single year, kids between two and 11 view more than 25 million food and drink ads on their favourite websites.

READ MORE: LeBron James, Peyton Manning food endorsements ‘sending mixed messages’ to kids

The most common advertisements are for Pop Tarts, Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes, McDonald’s Happy Meals, Lunchables and Red Bull.

“We know food and beverage marketing has a big impact on the health of kids. We know that [it] is associated with childhood obesity, we know that [it] affects children’s food preferences so kids actually prefer to eat foods they see advertised on TV, we know [it] also has an impact on the foods they ask their parents to purchase,” Dr. Monique Potvin Kent told Global News.

Potvin Kent is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine.

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“This is one of the reasons why I got into this line of research. My own kids were asking me to purchase unhealthy foods in the supermarket,” she said.

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READ MORE: How much sugar are your kids eating? Take a look at 3 new sugar limit guidelines

Right now, millions of dollars in advertising are pumped into targeting children and youth through TV, online and in other settings. About 26 per cent of Canadian kids are grappling with being overweight or obese, according to national statistics.

WATCH: As much as 90 per cent of food and beverages marketed are high in salt, fat or sugar. According to the Heart and Stroke`s latest report, much of that marketing is geared towards children. Meaghan Craig reports.
Experts concerned about unhealthy food marketing geared towards children
Experts concerned about unhealthy food marketing geared towards children

For Potvin Kent’s study, she pored over comScore data for the 10 most popular websites for kids. ComScore ratings shed light on which demographics are going to certain websites and for how long. Potvin Kent looked at a full year’s worth of data from the spring of 2015 into spring 2016.

Her team measured the quantity of food and beverage advertising offered up to kids, then studied the nutritional value of what the ads were trying to sell.

READ MORE: Two-thirds of packaged foods in Canada are full of added sugar

She learned that kids were being exposed to a “very, very high amount” of food and drink marketing, with nearly all of it being junk food and sugary drinks. She called her findings “very shocking numbers.”

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“Kids are going to these sites to play games and there are all these popups and banner ads that kids are seeing while they’re engaged in whatever activity they’re doing on that website,” she said.

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Keep in mind, kids spent about eight hours a day in front of their screens. The average child watches about two hours of TV per day and sees four to five food and drink ads per hour.

That’s because there are limits to TV advertising to children. Broadcasters are only allowed to have so many ads within a 30- to 60-minute period.

READ MORE: How much sugar should you be eating? How to follow the WHO’s guidelines

“Those limits don’t exist online so marketers, food and beverage companies, and other companies can put as much advertising as they want and there’s no one stopping them at any upper limits,” Potvin Kent said.

Potvin Kent and Heart & Stroke want this “marketing storm” to stop online. They’re calling on government officials to table and pass legislation that would force limits on marketing junk food to kids.

“[It’s] a bold measure, but given experts’ prediction that today’s children may be the first generation to have poorer health and shorter lifespans than their parents, we need to be bold,” Diego Marchese, interim CEO and executive vice-president of Heart & Stroke, said in a statement.

READ MORE: Ad ban leads to less fast food eating in Quebec, study suggests

Potvin Kent didn’t zero in on the content of each ad in this study but in previous research she learned that advertisers use certain tactics when marketing to kids: they use “spokescharacters” such as Tony the Tiger, bright colours, special fonts, and even kids in the ads to grab young people’s attention.

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The team’s next steps are to do a follow-up study on adolescents. In their initial findings, they learned that the most common ads on teens’ favourite websites include PopTarts, Froot Loops, Red Bull, Frosted Flakes and Tim Hortons’ Roll Up the Rim to Win.

Health Canada, for its part, said the federal government has “committed to restricting the commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children.”

“Health Canada is exploring policy options for implementing this commitment. Once the Department determines the path forward, it will engage a broad range of stakeholders,” a spokesperson said in an email.

“This restriction on marketing to children is part of a multi-year Healthy Eating Strategy, which aims to make healthier food choices the easier choice for all Canadians. Health Canada will use every tool at its disposal—legislation, regulation, guidance and education—to create the conditions that support healthy eating,” the statement said.

WATCH: Heart and Stroke Foundation report says heavy marketing of unhealthy foods to kids is a big problem
Food marketing geared to kids a big problem: Heart and Stroke Foundation
Food marketing geared to kids a big problem: Heart and Stroke Foundation

Food and Consumer Products Canada (FCPC) issued a statement to Global News.

“FCPC understands that there are different opinions about marketing to children, particularly in a digital media landscape,” said Joslyn Higginson, Vice President, Public & Regulatory Affairs in the statement.  “The federal government has already committed to further restrictions on child directed marketing, as set out in the Health Minister’s mandate letter.”

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She also added, “FCPC will continue to collaborate with all interested parties to implement effective, evidence-based solutions to this important policy initiative.”

Quebec is the only province in Canada that bans commercial advertising to children under 13 years old. The rest of the country follows a voluntary initiative to restrict advertising of food and drink to kids under 12.

Read the full report.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca