July 10th, 2007

Watching Food Ads on TV May Program Kids to Overeat

By Tara Parker-Pope
Wall Street Journal

Does food advertising on television make you eat more?

The question is central to the debate about whether food marketing to children is fueling the childhood obesity epidemic. While TV has long been linked with inactivity and poor eating habits, a number of health groups say food-industry advertising of fatty and sugary products to kids is making kids overeat. Now, new research from Britain supports the claim, showing that the type of advertising kids see on television can make a dramatic difference in how much food they eat afterward.

In two similar studies, researchers in Liverpool compared the effects of television advertising on the eating habits of 152 kids between the ages of 5 and 11. In both studies, the kids watched 10 ads followed by a cartoon. In one session, the kids saw ads for toys before they watched a video. But in another session, the toy ads were replaced by food advertising commonly aired with children’s and family programming. After both viewings, held two weeks apart, the kids were allowed to snack as much as they wanted from a table of low-fat and high-fat snacks, including grapes, cheese-flavored rice cakes, chocolate buttons and potato chips.

After the 5-to-7-year-old kids saw the food ads, they ended up eating 14% to 17% more calories than after the toy ads, according to a study published this month in the medical journal Appetite. But the changes were even more dramatic among the 9-to-11-year-olds. They ate from 84% to 134% more calories after being exposed to food ads compared with their snack intake after watching toy advertising, according to research presented in April at the European Congress on Obesity meeting in Budapest.

Notably, in the study of older children, kids who were overweight or obese not only ate more after viewing food ads, but they were more likely to eat sugary and high-fat foods. “This suggests that overweight and obese children are more susceptible to the messages they are exposed to through food advertising on television,” says Emma J. Boyland, an author on both studies and researcher at the University of Liverpool’s Human Ingestive Behaviour Laboratory.

Next week, the Federal Trade Commission will hold a forum on the issue of food marketing to kids and whether more regulation is needed. The agency has found that 22% of the ads kids see are for food products.

Food companies have long claimed that food advertising is about building brand loyalty—so a child will ask for Cheerios or Fruit Loops while shopping with mom. But the Liverpool test showed that kids will eat more of any type of food after seeing food ads on TV. None of the foods on the table were included in the ads the kids watched.

Last month, Kellogg Co., which makes Fruit Loops, said it would phase out advertising its products to children under age 12 unless the foods meet specific nutrition guidelines. The company made the changes after a lawsuit threat by the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the food lobby group Center for Science in the Public Interest. Walt Disney Co. has said it will only allow its characters to be used in the advertising and marketing of healthy foods. And Kraft Foods Inc. in 2005 also adopted nutritional guidelines for food advertising aimed at children.

The fact that a visual stimulus would prompt us to eat even if we’re not hungry makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, says David A. Levitsky, nutrition and psychology professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who is conducting a study this summer measuring the food-ad effect on adults. “From an evolutionary standpoint, if you see it you better eat it because you don’t know when it’s not going to be there anymore,” says Dr. Levitsky. “What the food companies have learned very well is how to take advantage of that process and get us to eat more by showing us food.”

Because most parents can’t monitor every ad their child is exposed to, one solution is to simply make sure your child only has access to healthy snacks after watching TV. That way, a post-TV binge won’t do much damage. Notably, in the Liverpool studies, kids’ consumption of healthy foods, such as grapes and low-fat snacks, also jumped after seeing food ads.


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