Urgent Regulation Needed to Combat Misleading Claims and Added Sugars in Foods Marketed to Young Children in the Philippines

A recent study conducted by UNICEF Philippines in collaboration with the Consortium for Improving Complementary Foods in Southeast Asia (COMMIT) has unveiled alarming findings regarding the nutritional quality of commercially produced packaged foods for young children in the Philippines. The research reveals that more than one-third of these products, aimed at children aged 6 months to 3 years, contain added sugars or sweeteners. Compounding the issue is the prevalent use of potentially misleading and deceptive labeling, coupled with insufficient government regulations on product composition and sale. This situation is particularly concerning given the tripling of overweight children in the country since 2003, a figure that is now considered "high" by global standards.

The Philippines is grappling with a triple burden of malnutrition, which manifests as stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, and a rapid increase in overweight and obesity among children. This multifaceted malnutrition crisis poses significant health risks for the country's young population.

UNICEF Representative to the Philippines, Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov, emphasized the urgent need for action, stating, “Children have a right to good nutrition. Without updated and enforced food regulations to protect children, they will consume more unhealthy foods that have high sugar content and sweeteners. This can displace needed essential nutrients, harm their dental health, and cause them to prefer unhealthy food later in life, leading to obesity and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart diseases.”

The COMMIT study examined 182 infant cereals, purees, snacks, and ready-to-eat meals marketed to infants and young children in the Philippines. Key findings from the study include:

  • Over a third of the products sold contain added sugars or sweeteners.
  • None of the product labels were in Filipino, making it challenging for parents and caregivers to understand and interpret the information.
  • Unhealthy products are marketed and promoted as suitable for young children aged 6 months to 3 years.
  • Most products are within recommended sodium thresholds.
  • Nearly all dry or instant cereal products are fortified, but the fortification levels often do not meet recommended standards.
  • A quarter of the food products lack a recommended minimum age of use of at least 6 months.
  • Only 2% of the product labels include messaging on the importance of continued breastfeeding.
  • Product labels often feature claims about product composition or nutrient content, such as “no artificial colors” and “100 percent natural.”

Commercially produced complementary foods are a staple in the diets of young children in the Philippines, with 83% of mothers from urban areas reporting daily provision of these foods to their children. In their decision-making process, 90% of mothers pay attention to product labels. The factors influencing their choices include nutritional value (84%), health information (83%), quality of ingredients (76%), mix of ingredients (68%), low or no added sugar (45%), and low or no salt (44%). However, only 26% of mothers cited nutrition or developmental benefits as reasons for providing these foods.

In light of these findings, UNICEF and COMMIT partners are advocating for:

  • Enhanced government regulations for commercially produced complementary foods, including banning the use of added sugars and sweeteners, limiting sugar and sodium content, and prohibiting misleading marketing and labeling practices.
  • Rigorous government monitoring and enforcement of national regulations on commercially produced complementary foods.
  • Support for parents to provide a diverse array of nutritious food to their youngest children by making healthy food available and affordable, and helping them navigate deceptive marketing and labeling practices.

These measures are crucial in ensuring that young children in the Philippines receive the nutrition they need for healthy growth and development, free from the adverse effects of high sugar content and misleading marketing.

For more information, please contact: Lely Djuhari | Advocacy and Communication Chief, UNICEF Philippines | +63 917 567 5622 | ldjuhari@unicef.org Marge Francia | Advocacy and Communication Specialist, UNICEF Philippines | +63 917 858 9447 | mfrancia@unicef.org

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