Food firms criticised for marketing less healthy products in lower-income countries

By Lester Wan

- Last updated on GMT

Research suggests firms promote fewer healthier products on their webpages in lower-income countries. ©GettyImages
Research suggests firms promote fewer healthier products on their webpages in lower-income countries. ©GettyImages

Related tags Nutrition

Major food and beverage firms are more likely to advertise healthier products online in high-income countries, compared to those which are less developed, a study has revealed.

The researchers assessed the online marketing strategies of F&B giants such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in Germany and the US (high income), China and Mexico (middle income) and India and the Philippines (low income), and reported finding “concerning”​ trends given the double burden of malnutrition and obesity in many less wealthy nations.

“Studies have shown food companies’ online promotions use a variety of marketing techniques to promote mostly energy-dense, nutrient-poor products, but no studies have compared the online marketing techniques and nutritional quality of products promoted on food companies’ international websites (prior to this),”​ the researchers said.

Compelling evidence

The researchers found that high-income countries’ websites featured diet food or beverage products or healthier alternatives significantly more frequently on their pages (25%), as compared to that of lower-middle income countries (14.5%).

For Coca-Cola, in high-income countries, 88.2% of its webpages showed sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), while 41.2% of them promoted diet versions. On the other hand, in lower-middle income countries, 54.2% of webpages advertised SSBs, while only 14.6% promoted diet options.

Similarly, for McDonald’s, 51% of the lower-middle income countries’ webpages showed food or beverages, yet only 7% promoted diet products. In comparison, 74% of the high-income countries’ pages showed food or beverages and diet options were promoted on 40.7% of them.

Half of McDonald’s food promoted on high-income countries’ webpages were diet or healthy options but just 6% of upper-middle income countries’ sites had healthy options. It was 0% for lower-middle income countries’ sites.

Likewise, on KFC’s webpages, 20.5% of those in high-income countries promoted a fresh side dish, compared to just 9.5% of upper-middle income countries’ webpages, and 0% of of lower-middle income countries' webpages.

The researchers also found that these major food firms advertised their charity work or philanthropic activities in lower-income countries significantly more frequently (15.7%) than in upper-middle income countries (2.6%) and high-income ones (2.3%).

Policy considerations

“These differences in promotion of unhealthy food and SSBs are concerning because they occur in the context of the increasing burden of chronic diseases globally, with 77% of the world’s diabetic population residing in low- and middle-income countries,” ​said the researchers.

They added that companies should take responsibility for the influence that their products can have on the populations that they target.

They also suggested that the findings can be used to guide the development of policies to address marketing in developing and emerging markets.

“Policymakers could consider prohibiting the use of certain marketing techniques in their countries or advocate for the promotion and sale of healthier food and beverage products,” ​they said.


Source: Globalization and Health

doi: 10.1186/s12992-017-0303-z

“Comparison of online marketing techniques on food and beverage companies’ websites in six countries”

Authors: Marie A Bragg, Margaret Eby, Josh Arshonsky, Alex Bragg and Gbenga Ogedegbe

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