Calls for Costa Rica to restrict 'overabundance' of unhealthy food child marketing

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Filipovic018
© GettyImages/Filipovic018

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Children in Costa Rica are exposed to "an overabundance" of unhealthy food marketing on television with over 90% of adverts against World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, prompting calls for restrictions.

In Costa Rica, over one-fifth (21%) of children aged between five and 12 were either overweight or obese in 2009. By 2016, this increased to over a third (34%).

Researchers from the University of Costa Rica recorded 288 hours of family programming and 288 hours of children’s programming broadcast on two national TV channels and two cable channels available in Costa Rica, resulting in almost 9,000 adverts.

They found that over 91% of the food and drink adverts should not have been marketed to children under the nutrient profile model developed by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to findings published in Public Health Nutrition​.

These ‘non permitted’ adverts were also more likely to use promotional characters, brand benefit claims, and nutrition and health claims than ‘permitted’ food and drink ads.

“We can assume that children are highly exposed unhealthy food and beverage ads. For example, if children in Costa Rica watch TV for two hours per day, they would be exposed to thirty-four to ninety-two unhealthy F&B ads per week​.”

The most advertised categories were ready-made foods (16 %), chocolate, confectionery and desserts (15 %), breakfast cereals (14 %), beverages (15 %), ice cream and ice pops (9 %) and salty snacks (8 %). Previous studies have shown that healthier foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, poultry and fish often represent less than 5 % of all adverts.

Despite some limitations – only 56% of Costa Rican households have cable TV, meaning data may not be representative at a population level – the study is the first of its kind to look at the extent of children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing in the Central American country.

“Children living in Costa Rica are exposed to an overabundance of TV marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages daily and there appeared to be a tendency of over-advertising during children’s peak viewing hours,” ​the researchers conclude. " Our findings help justify the need for regulatory actions by national authorities."

Costa Rican law prohibits any kind of food or drink advertising in public schools while regulation Nº 36868-S states that food advertising should not mislead the Ministry of Health’s dispositions in health, nutrition and hygiene education. The study authors, however, say this law is “unclear in its scope and reach​”. In addition, the country currently has no laws regulating junk food advertising on TV.

The researchers are therefore calling on Costa Rican policymakers to follow the example of other Latin American countries.

Chile’s Food and Marketing Law​, in place since 2016, prevents foods high in salt, saturated fats, sugar or salt from being advertised to children under 14. Advertising is defined as any form of promotion, communication, recommendation, propaganda or information that intends to increase the consumption of such products.

In 2014, Mexico brought in regulations to restrict unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children on TV and in cinemas, based on nutrient thresholds for 12 different food categories. However, the law allows these products to be advertised at certain times (for instance, between Monday and Friday from midnight to 2.30pm and between 7.30pm until 11.59pm).

The researchers add that the relevance of their results goes beyond the context of Costa Rica.

‘By including two channels that were family oriented, we were able to assess food and beverage marketing not only in child-directed programs, but also in family programs that might also be observed by children.”

Source: Public Health Nutrition
Available online 21 May 2019,
“Television food and beverage marketing to children in Costa Rica: current state and policy implications”
Authors: Irina Zamora-Corrales, Melissa L Jensen, Stefanie Vandevijvere, et al.

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