Selling Candy to Babies: The Disturbing Link Between Junk Food Brands and Childhood Obesity

Thu, 03 Jul 2014 11:50:11 PDT

There’s a memorable scene in the 2004 documentary Super Size Me where filmmaker Morgan Spurlock sits down with first graders in Worcester, Mass., and holds up a series of cards featuring the faces of historical figures like George Washington, Jesus, and then-president George W. Bush—as well as fast food icons Wendy and Ronald McDonald. Not surprisingly, the kids are a bit fuzzy on recognizing Jesus and the presidents. But they have a slightly elevated recognition of Wendy’s red pigtails, and absolutely light up when they see Ronald McDonald. One boy throws his hands up and exclaims, “I love their pancakes!”

Like that boy, research shows that children as young as 3 not only recognize popular food brands, but often have knowledge and preferences about the products—preferring Coke to Pepsi or McDonald’s to Burger King, for instance.

It gets worse. A soon-to-be-published paper written by researchers from the University of Oregon, Michigan State University, and Ann Arbor Public Schools Preschool and Family Center, reports that children who exhibit higher levels of brand awareness are more likely to be overweight or obese. Dr. T. Bettina Cornwell, a lead author on the studies and marketing professor at the University of Oregon says that kids who are overweight are likely to be overweight as adults, so their “first language of food” should be developed by parents leading in healthy practices—not by junk food marketers.

“What kind of a consumption patterns are we developing for a child?” she asks. “If a ‘first language’ is fruit and vegetables, that first language is what they come to expect, like, and ask for. If it is processed food—sugar, salt and fat—that will be what they are expecting.”

For the studies, researchers showed boys and girls aged 3-5 (69 kids in Study 1, 75 in Study 2) pictures of items that originated from specific fast-food restaurants, as well as brand-name breakfast cereals, candy, chips, and carbonated soft drinks in order to test their brand awareness. A 2009 study by the same authors found that children who had high brand knowledge tended to prefer foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. So for the new research, Cornwell and her colleagues recorded the body mass index of the children they studied.

“The results varied, which is a good thing,” said Anna McAlister, a professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University and co-author of the paper, which will be published in the journal Appetite. “Some kids knew very little about the brands while others knew them exceptionally well.”

Both studies found, however, that the kids who knew more about the brands were more likely to have a higher BMI, which is an indicator of being overweight. Only one study, however, showed that group exercise slightly offset the negative effects of higher junk food brand knowledge, indicating that physical activity may not be a cure-all for addressing obesity later in childhood. While the most recent Centers for Disease Control data appear to show a decrease in obesity among 2-5-year-olds, the CDC reports that the obesity rate for children ages 2-19 has remained between 18-20 percent for more than a decade. According to the CDC, more than a third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese.

This population is often the main target for food companies. In 2012, fast food companies spent nearly $5 billion in marketing in the United States, often targeting children and teenagers, according to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. We also know junk food companies, like many cereal makers, use beloved cartoons and characters to appeal to children. These products, many of them unhealthy, are placed at children’s eye level in supermarkets.

Cornwell, who teaches marketing, says these trends are especially troubling given that previous research shows that children who are overweight are likely to be overweight as adults. Food companies follow many popular consumer trends like gluten-free or organic, she says, but there needs to be a new trend that focuses on our most vulnerable. This will affect our public policy, but also how we parent our children.

“We need a consumer trend of the youngest children receiving the healthiest possible diet,” she says. “What we have right now are very young children who are developing a first language of food that sets them up for a trajectory toward obesity. The best money spent is setting up a lifetime pattern of healthy eating.”

Related stories on TakePart:

McDonald’s New ‘Healthy’ Pitch: A Grinning Happy Meal Box and Low-Fat Strawberry Yogurt

That Figures: Fast-Food Marketing to Kids

Ads on Your Kid’s Report Card? The Debate Over New In-School Advertising Heats Up

Here’s How Fast-Food Ads Hook Kids on Junk

Original article from TakePart