Study suggests link between ads featuring food and children’s dietary choices

September 15, 2016

By Greg Peters

Amanda Bruce
Amanda Bruce

For years parents have lamented the influence that television advertising has on their children's food choices. But there has been little scientific data to support whether food commercials may actually lead to poor dietary habits in children.

Now a new study published in the August edition of the Journal of Pediatrics by researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center and the University of Missouri-Kansas City is shedding new light on the issue of food commercials and kids. The study, led by Amanda Bruce, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the KU Department of Pediatrics, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brain activity of children after they were exposed to commercials featuring healthy and unhealthy food items.  

The team's research suggests there is a strong link between the food commercials children watch on television and their eating habits. In addition, watching food commercials might change the way children value taste, which could in turn increase the possibility of kids making more impulsive dietary choices.  

"The study raises important questions about how ethical it is to advertise foods, in particular unhealthy foods, to children," said Bruce. "Given that the critical-thinking areas of children's brains have yet to develop, should we be using these persuasive, effective advertising techniques to increase the likelihood of unhealthy eating behaviors?"  

How the study works   

The researchers asked 23 children between the ages of 8 and 14 to rate 60 familiar food items (30 healthy items such as fruits and vegetables and 30 non-healthy items such as French fries and doughnuts) on how healthy  and  tasty they were. Bruce and her team used a 45-minute long functional magnetic resonance imaging session to examine the children's brain activity while the kids rated the food images on how much they wanted to eat them. They also showed them 12 commercials - six food commercials for restaurants such as McDonald's and Subway, and six non-food commercials for businesses such as Ford and T-Mobile.  

Bruce said they focused on the children's ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that lies approximately behind the eyebrows, which is most active during reward valuation. The scans showed children's ventromedial prefrontal cortices had significantly more blood flow - a proxy for brain activity - after food commercials had been viewed.  

"Both the commercials and the foods themselves stimulated one of the same regions of the brain associated with addiction," Bruce said. "This is especially a problem among kids whose brains haven't developed the brain regions for critical thinking. Combine this with the low cost of unhealthy foods, and you have a perfect storm for the development and maintenance of an obese society."  

In addition, the researchers found that, in general, taste was even more important to kids after they watched commercials featuring food versus advertisements that did not focus on food.  

"What this study adds is evidence that children's decisions are based more on taste and less on healthiness after watching commercials," Bruce said. "Their decisions are faster, as well, suggesting increased impulsivity."  

Target audience  

Over the years, food marketing has been cited as a key to the items kids consume and how much, and marketers have been quick to seize on the food-choice habits of this target audience. Until this study, however, few researchers had looked at what was going on scientifically inside the human body that might when children are shown food imagery that could influence the decision-making process.  

So what are parents supposed to do when an estimated $1.8 billion are spent annually on ads targeting children?  

"It is very difficult in our society to keep children from watching commercials," Bruce said. "Parents and pediatricians should be aware of these results so they can put limits on screen time involving food advertising. They should also discuss with their children the importance of critical thinking about food commercials."   

Last modified: Oct 20, 2016
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