Should junk food have plain packaging?

by | Mar 7, 2017

I’ve just been on BBC Asian Network (goto 2.14 hr) to give my opinion on whether plain packaging on confectionery and unhealthy snack items might be a way of combating our obesity crisis. This stems from a proposal by neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz, from Cambridge University, who suggests that the way sugar-rich and fatty foods are marketed can make them irresistible to some people.

I absolutely agree that one of the most important ways to help us to improve our eating habits is to make a change to our environment. If you make unhealthy food less accessible, for example, then it’s just more difficult to grab and go. Initiatives such as removing sweets at the checkout in supermarkets have been introduced by the BDA in an attempt to reduce the purchase of such foods.

We recognise and seem to desire popular brands. Colourful packaging lures us to purchase – think of the bright colours used by fast food giants. Strange that bright red (one of the most popular colours on fast food) isn’t so tempting when it’s on a red pepper or tomato!

Children tend to prefer exciting packaging. A study at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in Baltimore showed that most children preferred the taste of burger and fries when it was served in branded packaging rather than unbranded, despite the fact that they had been presented with the same food twice. I know from families I speak to that cartoon images, colourful packaging and child-friendly pictures and logos encourage pester power. Mum often gives in and buys something in the spur of the moment to pacify cranky kids!

I do believe that reducing the temptation for children to eat sugar-rich foods would be a step in the right direction. Why can’t we have colourful cartoon characters on healthy products?

In practice, we know that plain packaging of cigarettes showed a decline in smoking rates in Australia. I’m not sure that plain packaging on unhealthy foods would make a significant difference, and I haven’t seen any research demonstrating this. I suppose this might be a welcome deterrent for some people who may be more susceptible to impulsive purchases of unhealthy foods with attractive wrappers. However, our desire for sugary and fatty foods goes far deeper than packaging. There are emotional, psychological, social and other reasons why we may choose to eat something unhealthy, And in time it’s likely that some people would just get used to the packaging being plain, but they’d still get a boost by what’s inside.

Eating is for enjoyment, and I believe there is a place for all foods, depending on the circumstances and what else you’re consuming over the course of a week. There’s nothing wrong with having treat foods as part of a varied, balanced diet. However, we do need to do something drastic to our environment in order to make it easier for us to avoid the temptation of being sucked in to eating unhealthy foods for a short term reward. I’d be interested to see research on whether plain packaging on unhealthy food creates a change in purchase behaviour. I’d also be interested to know how this could be regulated; strict criteria would need to be developed to assess the classification of what we call “junk foods”.

In the end, obesity is a complex issue and we need a joined up multi-pronged approach. For some people, if you’ve really got a craving for unhealthy foods and you smell your favourite takeaway, you’ve probably gone past the point of no return, plain wrappers or not!

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