How Children See Food Advertising

Obese children respond to food logos differently than children of healthy weight

(RxWiki News) It's hard to turn on the TV or drive down the street without seeing ads for food. Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, Pepsi and other food advertising is all around us – and our kids.

Past research has shown that 98 percent of food products advertised on TV to children are high in salt, fat or sugar. A recent study has found that obese children are more vulnerable to those ads than children of a healthy weight.

"Teach children self-control early."

The study, led by Amanda S. Bruce, PhD, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, aimed to find out whether the brains of obese children reacted differently to food logos than the brains of children of a healthy weight.

Dr. Bruce and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 10 obese children and 10 children of a healthy weight. This method of scanning shows where blood flows in the brain, which can indicate changes in brain activity.

The children were shown 60 logos of food products and 60 logos of nonfood products while their brains were being scanned so the researchers could see how their brain activity changed when the children saw familiar food logos.

Food-related logos included popular foods like Dunkin Donuts, Frosted Flakes, Doritos, Starbucks and other popular cereals, restaurants and foods. Examples of the non-food logos were Nintendo, Goodyear, Duracell, FedEx and Hallmark.

During the scans, the obese children had more activity in the part of their brains related to rewards than the healthy-weight children had when they saw food logos.

Meanwhile, when children of a healthy weight saw the food logos, they tended to have more activity in the part of their brains linked to self-control than the obese children had.

They also had the children, aged 10 to 14, fill out questionnaires regarding their self-control. The questionnaires were standard psychology assessments of impulsivity, and the healthy-weight children scored about 36 percent lower on impulsivity than the obese children did. There were no differences regarding hunger between the two groups of children.

"This study provides preliminary evidence that obese children may be more vulnerable to the effects of food advertising," said Dr. Bruce in a release about the study. "One of the keys to improving health-related decision-making may be found in the ability to improve self-control."

The study was published November 30 in the Journal of Pediatrics. The research was funded by the University of Kansas Medical Center Research Institute's Clinical Pilot Program. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
November 29, 2012