Most food marketed to children is high in saturated fat, salt or sugar and low in essential minerals, a new report from the European Heart Network has found.
TV advertising marketing unhealthy food to children has serious implications for childhood obesity and should be banned, the report said.
Approximately 20% of school-age children in Europe, and 21% in Ireland, carry excess body fat. One quarter of these are obese and at risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes before or during early adulthood.
The report, from the association of heart foundations of Europe recommends a Europe-wide ban on TV advertising of unhealthy food to children.
Regulations governing advertising to children differ significant from country to country. States which had banned such advertising were being "undermined" by cable and satellite broadcasts from other countries, it said, and the only solution was a complete prohibition throughout the EU.
"The TV Without Frontiers Directive should be amended to prohibit TV advertising of 'unhealthy' food to children, thereby protecting the existing legislation in Norway and Sweden and extending this protection to the rest of Europe's children."
European treaties already had provision for the inclusion of health protection, the report states, so there should in theory be "no difficulty" in instituting the ban.
Children reportedly have become "market makers" for global companies, because of their influence over their parents' buying decisions. The report concludes that all countries use a variety of "creative" marketing strategies to promote food to children.
"These include linking food products with children's heroes and cartoons, play, fun, action-adventure, humor, magic and fantasy."
The percentage of TV advertising for unhealthy food aimed at children ranged from 49% in Italy to nearly 100% in Denmark and the United Kingdom. In Ireland, 54% of all TV advertisements promote unhealthy food to children.
Children were also exposed to unhealthy food marketing in schools and online, it said.
The findings of the report were particularly worrying at a time when obesity was on the rise, IHF chief executive Michael O'Shea said. "There is a growing and worrying trend toward obesity in Ireland and elsewhere. It is widely acknowledged that this is a societal problem, where many players have a role."
The report indicated it was necessary for the government to take steps to deal with the marketing of unhealthy food, he said.
"This report . . . highlights our concerns about the lack of regulation of marketing directed at children in Ireland. The Irish Heart Foundation will shortly be making strong recommendations on the issue to government."