As obesity levels continue to rise in much of the western world, the finger of blame is being increasingly pointed at the food industry. The latest accusations come from consumer group the UK Food Commission, which claims that manufacturers are deliberately targeting children with high-calorie, low-nutrient foods.
The Food Commission makes its allegations in a report, Broadcasting Bad Health: why food marketing to children needs to be controlled, and is particularly scathing of the methods - and budgets - employed to advertise what it calls junk food.
The report claims that food advertising expenditure is $40 billion (€34.7bn), and that for every $1 spent by the World Health Organisation on preventing the diseases caused by western diets, more than $500 is spent by the food industry promoting them.
Much of the advertising is targeted squarely at children, the Food Commission claims. In industrialised countries, food advertising accounts for around half of all advertising broadcast during children's TV viewing times, the report states, adding that three-quarters of such food adverts promote high-calorie, low-nutrient foods.
"Junk foods and sugary drinks are supported by enormous advertising budgets that dwarf any attempt to educate children about healthy diets," said research officer Kath Dalmeny, co-author of the Food Commission report.
"Junk food advertisers know that children are especially susceptible to marketing messages. They target children as young as two years old with free toys, cartoon characters, gimmicky packaging and interactive websites to ensure that children pester their parents for the products."
Not surprisingly, the food industry has been quick to respond to the accusations levelled at it in the report. The Food and Drink Federation, voice of the UK food and drink manufacturing industry, said that its members acted extremely responsibly when it came to marketing products to children.
"UK food and drink manufacturers take a very responsible view of their relationships with children. There are already strict Codes of Practice governing advertising and these state that ads should not encourage children to eat or drink frequently throughout the day, condone excessive consumption or suggest that confectionery or snacks should replace balanced meals," said the FDF in a statement.
"The UK food and drink manufacturing industry provides a wide variety of wholesome and tasty foods from which parents and children can build a healthy diet. No one food is bad - balance is the key. Manufacturers use advertising and marketing to promote their brands in a competitive marketplace."
But the report suggests that companies may also be taking advantage of more lax regulation in less developed markets. For countries with transitional economies such as many of those in eastern Europe, the Commission claims that for every $100 invested in fruit and vegetable production, over $1,000 is being invested in soft drinks and confectionery.
The timing of the report is particularly pertinent as it comes at a time when food companies are increasingly wary of the threat of legal action. A number of the world's leading food advertisers, including such big names as Hershey, McDonald's, Tate & Lyle, Cadbury's, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Heinz and Nestlé, have been warned that they could face tobacco industry-style lawsuits accusing them of contributing to rising obesity levels - and that their profitability could be at risk as a result.
Furthermore, the report claims, the WHO's own investigations have shown that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that problems such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and several common types of cancers could be linked to eating high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and sugar-sweetened drinks, backed by a cultural environment in which processed foods and fast-food outlets are heavily marketed.
The Food Commission report, which was compiled on behalf of the International Association of Consumer Food Organisations (IACFO), an alliance of non-governmental organisations that represent consumer interests in the areas of food safety, nutrition and related matters, was particularly critical of companies such as KFC, Burger King, McDonald's, Kinder, Mars, Cadbury's, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Pepsi for targeting children in their advertising.