Terry Jones, director of communications at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), said the critics had been “highly selective over the information presented in order to make yet another of their seasonal attacks on the food industry”.
The report, The 21st century gingerbread house: How companies are marketing junk food to children online, produced with the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC), claimed that unhealthy food was being promoted to children online in order to evade strict rules governing advertising before children’s television programmes.
Some manufacturers use bespoke websites, designed to appeal to children, free games, gifts and downloads and fun characters, said BHF. Many also use social networking sites such as Facebook.
BHF policy manager Mubeen Bhutta said: “Like wolves in sheep’s clothing, junk food manufacturers are preying on children and targeting them with fun and games they know will hold their attention. Regulation protects our children from these cynical marketing tactics while they are watching their favourite children’s TV programmes, but there is no protection when they are online.”
But Jones insisted that his organisation’s members made no attempt to mislead consumers. “They [BHF and CFC] have highlighted aspects of our members’ online marketing that support their agenda but consciously ignored the many other positive aspects that demonstrate the industry’s responsible approach,” he said.
“For example, the sites are clearly branded, there is no attempt to mislead consumers and parental interaction is encouraged.”
Advertising in the UK is well governed and rules have recently been revised to include online material, he added.
The BHF singled out Kerry Foods’ Cheestrings and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Buttons for particular criticism.
Although described as “ideal lunchbox snacks", just one Cheestring contains more salt than a typical pack of salted crisps, claimed the BHF.
One pack of Cadbury’s buttons was said to contain as much saturated fat as a typical hamburger.
Meanwhile, the proportion of children in England who are obese in their final year of primary school is rising, according to new statistics from the National Health Service.
In 2010/11, 19% of Year 6 children were obese compared with 18.7% in 2009/10 and 17.5% in 2006/7, revealed the National Child Measurement Programme.
The BHF tongue-in-cheek guide to marketing 'junk' foods online
“Step one: The Lard bar (fictitious junk food product) needs to grab the attention of young people and their parents. “We want kids to crave it and we want their parents to think it’s great for their little ‘uns’ to eat.
“Step two: Brand characters are enormously popular with kids. There are no regulations restricting their use and they are a great way to get these ‘anklebiters’ hooked.
“Step three: Add some free gifts for the children to download, posters, desktop pictures and ring tones.
“Step four: A handful of heavily branded games will get kids involved and keep them coming back.
“Step five: Social networking sites. Three-quarters of kids aged 12-15 use social networking sites. It’s so easy to reach huge groups of children by offering prizes and fun games.”