How social media may be getting around measures to restrict depictions of unhealthy food and drinks

Regulations ensure that the advertising of unhealthy foods is limited to children in traditional media. An investigations looks into how celebrity social media may be showing children and adolescents a variety of unhealthy foods and drinks.

In the past several years, governments have attempted to control advertising for foods and beverages with poor nutritional quality on television and other forms of traditional media. Although this has been met with some success, there aren’t any rulesthat regulate food and drinks on social media, which is an extremely common source of information and entertainment for children and teenagers. Many celebrities include mentions, images and videos of foods and beverages in their posts, both sponsored and unsponsored. A new study examines the nutritional quality of the food and drinks featured in celebrity posts.1

The investigators performed a cross-sectional study that looked at the content of posts on Instagram that included food and beverages. The pool of celebrities included athletes, actors, and musicians. The Nutrient Profile Index was used to rate the nutritional quality of the posted food and beverages and was based on the sugar, sodium, energy, saturated fat, fiber, protein, and fruit and/or vegetable content per 100-g sample (a score of 0 indicated least healthy and 100, healthiest). A score of less than 64 for foods and less than 70 for drinks was considered “less healthy.” A secondary outcome was if a link existed between the nutritional quality of items in a post and the sponsorship status.

A total of 181 celebrity accounts with a combined follower count of 5.7 billion, were included in the sample. There were 3065 social media posts examined with 5180 foods and beverages included. In these posts, snacks and sweets (920 [37.3%] of the foods) and alcoholic beverages (1375 [50.7%] of the beverages) were the most commonly seen. Nearly 90% of the celebrity profiles were given a less healthy overall food nutrition score and a less healthy overall beverage nutrition score. These scores were deemed unhealthy enough to fail the advertising laws for children in the United Kingdom. Posts that featured foods with higher nutrition scores had significantly fewer likes (b, –0.003; 95% CI, –0.006 to 0.000; P = .04) and comments (b, –0.006; 95% CI, –0.009 to –0.003; P < .001) from followers, but beverage nutrition scores had no significant links to (b, –0.010; 95% CI, –0.025 to 0.005; P = .18) or comments (b, –0.003; 95% CI, –0.022 to 0.016; P = .73). Just 147 of the posts had been sponsored by a food or beverage company, such as Red Bull, Aviation American Gin, and Wheaties. Drinks in a sponsored post were found to have more than twice as much alcohol as those in nonsponsored posts (10.8 g [95% CI, 9.3 g to 12.3 g] per 100 g of beverage vs 5.3 g [95% CI, 4.7 g to 5.9 g] per 100 g of beverage).

The investigators concluded that many celebrities with extensive followings on Instagram feature a variety of food that is generally unhealthy and that the vast majority of those posts are not sponsored. This indicates that unhealthy food and beverage depictions are found beyond advertising and likely requires a more hands-on approach to combat.

Reference

1. Turnwald B, Anderson K, Markus H, Crum A. Nutritional analysis of foods and beverages posted in social media accounts of highly followed celebrities. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(1):e2143087. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.43087