Researchers say social media sites, such as Facebook, may play a role in promoting junk food to adolescents and young adults.
The research team, including Becky Freeman, PhD, of the University of Sydney in Australia, publish their findings in the American Journal of Public Health.
Concerns have been raised about the marketing of junk food in the past, particularly when it is aimed toward children and adolescents.
In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for increased control on the marketing of foods that are high in sugars, salt and trans fats, calling promotion of these foods to children "disastrous."
And earlier this year, Medical News Today published a spotlight investigating whether junk food companies should be sponsoring major sporting events. In this, Thiago Hérick de Sá, of the Department of Nutrition at the University of São Paulo's School of Public Health in Brazil, said such sponsors represent a "direct attack" on global efforts to reduce consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks, adding:
"The basic aim of any company is to sell their products or services and to profit. The sponsorship of major sporting events [by fast-food and sugary drink companies] is part of the company's marketing strategy to achieve that aim, to encourage people, including children, to consume more of their products."
In this latest study, Freeman and colleagues investigated how nutritionally poor foods are marketed through social media sites and looked at the audience that are most likely to engage with this marketing.
Unhealthy food brands 'capitalize on social users' networks'
To reach their findings, the team analyzed the Facebook pages of 27 high-ranked food and beverage brands, including Subway, Slurpee, Coca-Cola and Maltesers. The researchers assessed their marketing techniques, follower engagement and marketing messages.
The researchers found that unhealthy food companies - defined as those which were energy-dense and nutrient-poor - pulled in a high level of engagement on the social media site, particularly from teenagers and young adults.
The team also found that Facebook users who had high engagement with unhealthy food companies were increasingly sharing the companies' content with other users.
Furthermore, it became apparent that Facebook users needed very little incentive to engage with these companies. That said, the researchers found that when unhealthy food companies ran giveaways, competitions or associated their products with positive events, this effectively encouraged engagement from Facebook users.
Commenting on their findings, the team says:
"By using the interactive and social aspects of Facebook to market products, energy-dense and nutrient-poor food brands capitalize on users' social networks and magnify the reach and personal relevance of their marketing messages
In terms of health policy, much of the current work to limit exposure to [energy-dense, nutrition-poor food] advertising is focused on restricting advertisements during children's television programs and viewing hours. Our study shows that this narrow focus is likely to miss large amounts of online advertising aimed at adolescents."
Earlier this year, MNT reported on a proposal from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change nutrition labels of food products. They say the overhaul would make it easier for people to find healthy foods.