Children see over 1,000 TV ads a year for unhealthy foods despite efforts to restrict this kind of advertising, a conference on obesity has been told.
Even though advertisers are complying with a new broadcasting code limiting ads for foods high in fat, sugar and salt, "young children aged three to five years still see upwards of 1,000 TV ads for unhealthy foods over the course of a year," University College Dublin lecturer Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden said.
A study using Broadcasting Authority of Ireland data showed younger children watch a lot of adult TV and programmes after the 9pm watershed, and over half the food ads they see are for unhealthy products.
"That's a lot of exposure to unhealthy items in a situation where the regulations are supposed to be working," said Dr Tatlow-Golden who specialises in children's understanding of advertising.
And while children have a very clear understanding that fruit and vegetables are healthy, they are much less clear about what is unhealthy, with for example, 57pc believing nuggets and chips is a healthy meal.
Based on the food ads they see children end up with a very skewed idea of a normal diet, with over 80pc of ads promoting junk food and dairy products, and only 6pc promoting fruit and vegetables.
The influence of the internet and online branding is also growing for young children, though television remains the key influencer and should be switched off or muted during ad breaks, she told a Safefood conference on "Candy Coated Marketing" to children.
World Health Organisation (WHO) programme manager for obesity Dr Joao Breda said that price policies such as taxes on unhealthy foods and subsidies for good ones had a role to play in tackling obesity.
The WHO is about to publish its new guidelines which will recommend consumers "ideally" reduce sugar intake to 5pc of daily food consumption to prevent tooth decay and obesity, though the maximum recommended intake of 10pc will be maintained, he said.
"We have to acknowledge that we have a problem with sugar, it's very simple," he said.
Safefood nutrition director Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan said that "it's a fact of life that in Ireland we have to run the gauntlet of an overwhelming display of treat foods to do our grocery shopping or even buy petrol," she said.
Obesity is beginning at ever younger ages across Ireland, with one in four primary school children here overweight or obese while by the age of 50 a staggering 80pc of Irish adults are an unhealthy weight.