A leading supermarket chain has banned advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks targeted specifically at children.

The Co-op said it would no longer advertise products that were high in fat, sugar and salt during children’s television programmes as such advertisements “blackmailed” parents into buying products. It was prompted to take action after successive government health warnings about poor nutrition in children’s diets.

The Co-op is also boycotting the use of character and cartoon merchandising on the same Co-op products, and has pledged to promote healthy diets to children. It also wants the Independent Television Commission (ITC) to force others in the food industry to follow its lead.

It commissioned a survey into food adverts aimed at youngsters, which found that 99% of food and drink advertised to children during Saturday morning children’s television contained either high fat, high sugar, or high salt levels – all associated with poor diets.

Adverts for cakes, biscuits, and confectionery constituted 46% of advertising on Children’s ITV (CITV) and 53% during the Big Breakfast, compared with a combined figure of just 13% on evening television.

The inquiry identified several ways that advertisers sought to appeal to children, which included making products appear to be friends, using animation, celebrities or heroes, and encouraging children to collect goodies and compete.

Researchers also discovered that 73% of children asked their parents to buy food products they had seen advertised on television and that 77% of parents wanted to see a ban on this type of commercial.

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents food manufacturers in the UK, said there are already codes of practice governing children’s advertising, which 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.

The findings clearly demonstrate that the combined impact of food and drink advertising during children’s TV viewing hours runs counter to both the government’s healthy eating guidelines and the spirit of the ITC code.