Food commercials change children's eating priorities

Children are exposed to food advertising, including junk food commercials, multiple times a day. Researchers have found that these advertisements directly influence children's food choices and brain activity.

The food industry spends around $1.8 billion a year marketing products to children and adolescents. Children between the ages of 2-5 years are estimated to view more than 1,000 advertisements per year, and teenagers almost 2,000.

Previous research indicates that children who view advertisements are more likely to prefer branded foods than children not exposed to advertisements. Behavioral studies have reported an association between receptivity to food commercials and the amount of food consumed. In a new study, Dr. Amanda Bruce, assistant professor of behavioural paediatrics, together with researchers from the University of Kansas Medical Center and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, aimed to examine children's food decision processes and brain activity during active food selections. This, by analysing functional magnetic resonance imaging data of 23 children aged 8 to 14 years of age, while they were made to watch food and non-food television commercials.

Results highlighted that, overall, children's decisions on the foods they wanted to eat were driven by tastiness rather than healthfulness. The taste of foods was even more of a factor after watching food commercials - that is, children favored specific foods and placed an even greater emphasis on taste attributes of these foods.

The researchers found that watching food commercials changed the way children assess the importance of taste when making food choices. The authors wrote: "Food commercials may prompt children to consider their liking and wanting of specific food items, irrespective of the lack of any health benefits. This increased emphasis on taste may make it even more difficult for relevant caregivers to encourage healthy food choices. This evidence has implications for policies related to food advertising to children."

However, non – food commercials were found to show results that show less brain activity compared to those when the children were watching food commercials. This also affects the way children view food and may signal their susceptibility to prefer those food items that they are most familiar with as shown on television.

Finally, The Center for Disease Control reports that obesity among children has more than doubled and an alarming four-fold increase among adolescents in the past 30 years, so these findings should concern parents and health authorities to take drastic measures to address the concern and ensure that parental guidance and intervention is a key factor in raising awareness of this rising problem with children.

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