Junk Food With Kid's Cartoons Is A Fight Parents Can't Win

We need a national obesity strategy, because parent's alone can't win this fight.

"I love Elsa, and I hate you!" my three year old roars at me in front of a cafe full of people in active wear, sipping protein shakes while they throw wary sideward glances my way.

"You need to eat your celery sticks and strawberries darling, we are not buying the Elsa Frozen egg."

"Why? Because it's 10am, and it's full of sugar," I reply.

She grabs three of them and runs out of the cafe (of course they are positioned to give every toddler ease of access). I silently curse the cafe owners (ironically in a gym complex!)  and make a mental note to send an angry email to the product's manufacturer as I bolt after the would-be thief.

This exchange is an all too common predicament well-meaning parents find themselves in, in the fight against junk food and sugar.

On Friday, the Obesity Coalition Policy looked at 53 dairy snacks, 30 snack bars, and 41 breakfast cereals that featured cartoons or character promotions.  Unsurprisingly the survey discovered almost all of the brightly- packaged products contained far too much sugar.

As a mother of two girls, products like these are the bane of my existence

From chocolate mousse featuring the Minions, to breakfast cereal with Disney toy giveaways - these products strategically feed two addictions - the "Elsa is my favourite person in the world" paraphernalia addiction coupled with a plain and simple sugar addiction.

As a journalist, I consider myself pretty well-informed. I know how alarming the health statistics are.

Twenty seven percent of Australian children are above a healthy weight and tooth decay is the highest cause of acute, preventable hospital stays for our children.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we consume an average of 14 teaspoons of sugar a day -- that's more than double what the World Health Organisation recommends for adults.

The Obesity Policy Coalition wants the Senate  to consider how unhealthy food is marketed to kids. Image: Getty

We also know that Australians are eating out more and spending a greater percentage of their household income on food and dining out.

Next time you're at a restaurant, ask for the kids menu, even if you're dining alone.

You'll be hard-pressed to find a vegetable among the deep-friend offerings, and in most cases a scoop of ice cream and cup of soft drink will get thrown in for free.

But knowing these stats and trends, and using my broadcast-ready voice of authority, only goes a small way to alleviate the the parental burden imposed by food and retail marketers. (Don't get me started on Target's junk-food-junkie-haven that doubles up as it's checkout).

It's too simplistic to suggest the obesity epidemic is attributed to poor parenting, or a  massive failure of willpower. Of course parents need to do what's best for their kid's health and not what is the easiest way to settle a food court stand-off.

More importantly, the food industry needs to be held accountable, and since it won't do so voluntarily, we need legislation to force change.

Kids menus -- where vegetables are a rare side dish option, and hot chips abound. Image: Getty Images

Here's a crazy idea, why don't we start by having a national obesity strategy? Currently,  there are two federal programs -- the Healthy Food Partnership to encourage healthy eating, and the Health Star rating, a front-of-pack labelling system (which is indecipherable at best, even in it's watered down version thanks to powerful industry lobbying).

In 2016, the Dutch food industry voluntarily decided to remove popular children’s characters from the packaging of unhealthy foods in a bid to curb obesity.

The decision, was first of its kind in Europe, and it means characters including Dora the Explorer and Disney’s Frozen heroines were banished from food and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar which targeted children.

The Obesity Policy Coalition wants the Senate  to consider how unhealthy food is marketed to kids. It'll form part of its submission to parliamentary inquiry examining how the food industry contributes to childhood obesity.

Submissions are open until 6 July, that gives me a few days to film the next time one of my children has a public meltdown over a strategically placed sugar-laden "treat".

I hope video submissions will be considered.