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Person searching on Google on their mobile phone (Photo by Arkan Perdana on Unsplash)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Google’s nutrition advertising policy could drastically reduce the amount of unhealthy ads American children see online. Researchers from The George Institute for Global Health suggest that the tech giant could play a pivotal role in promoting healthier diets for younger generations by reducing their exposure to ads promoting unhealthy foods and beverages.

If Google’s policy was implemented in the U.S., researchers say it would significantly limit the number of products from the nation’s top 25 food and beverage companies that could be advertised to children online.

“We know that relying on voluntary codes of practice leaves children exposed to the ‘Wild West’ of digital advertising, driving demand for unhealthy products that are fuelling epidemics of obesity and other chronic diseases that will shorten their lives,” says study lead author Dr. Elizabeth Dunford, research fellow with The George Institute’s Food Policy Division and adjunct assistant professor for the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina, in a media release. “Our research shows that applying Google’s own policy on the digital marketing of unhealthy products in its home country could potentially reduce children’s exposure to this online content, which could lead to significant health gains.”

Google app
Google app (Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash)

Google’s Nutrient Profiling Model (NPM) has already been voluntarily adopted in the European Union and the United Kingdom. It specifies the nutritional standards that a food or drink must meet to be advertised to children through its Google Display Network. For instance, foods high in fat, sugar, and salt such as donuts and pizzas would be excluded. Google has stated that it supports the responsible advertising of food and beverages.

The George Institute’s research analyzed 14,188 products from major U.S. food and beverage manufacturers, including giants like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Kraft Heinz. Their findings showed that only around 18 percent of these products (primarily those low in fat, sugar, and salt) would qualify to be advertised to U.S. children under Google’s NPM policy.

Although the origins of Google’s NPM remain private, the study indicated its alignment with other globally recognized NPMs, like the World Health Organization’s European model. Still, it is less stringent than the Pan American Health Organization’s approach.

“Although it’s commonly known as a search engine company, Google’s main business is actually online advertising, via its Global Display Network which targets advertising to browsers – including children – across over 35 million websites and apps,” notes Dr. Dunford. “We know that food marketing to children is pervasive and has been linked to increased preference for unhealthy foods. Young people’s exposure to digital marketing is particularly prevalent and is associated with poor diet-related health outcomes.”

Teen boy eating junk food, drinking soda while looking at smartphone
(© New Africa – stock.adobe.com)

Given that the majority of an average American’s daily calorie intake comes from packaged foods and beverages and the current high rates of obesity among American children and adolescents, the team says the lack of government-led initiatives to regulate online unhealthy food advertising is concerning.

While the World Health Organization has reiterated its call for government action on this issue, researchers believe that immediate steps, like adopting Google’s policy, can provide a quick solution.

“We know they can do this, and do it rapidly – they already have in other markets. We’re calling on Google to put their money where their mouth is and use their power and influence for good in the country where they started,” explains Dr. Dunford. “The health of future generations of Americans is at stake.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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