Young children are more likely to easily recognise unhealthy food brands than healthy ones, say researchers.
New research investigating the development of young children's brand knowledge of foods that are highly advertised on television – both healthy and less healthy – has shown that kids of pre-school age recognise significantly more unhealthy food and drink brands than healthy ones.
Led by Mimi Tatlow-Golden from University College Dublin (UCD), the team showed 172 Irish children, aged between three and five, the logos of nine healthy and unhealthy food and drink brands. Each was asked to name the food or drink, explain what it was and match the logo to a picture of the appropriate product.
According to Tatlow-Golden the findings show that a child's knowledge of brands is linked to their television-viewing habits and their parents' eating habits.
"These findings suggest that we need to look at the complete marketing environment to all age groups, not just TV advertising. It looks as if marketing effects may be taking place through parents, who choose food for themselves and for their children. The findings also highlight a window of opportunity for educating families and young children in the pre-school years," she noted.
The team added that that taste preferences, eating habits and our knowledge of food are all formed early in life ‘and it's much easier to change things then'.
"Parents' eating habits are linked with children's knowledge about unhealthy foods, so parent education and family interventions are important," said study co-author, Dr Eilis Hennessy - also of UCD. "Food education in crèches and preschools also needs to be supported creatively. It should include teaching children about what's not healthy - not just what's good for them - as they have little understanding of this, yet they have high levels of knowledge about unhealthy food brands."
The Irish research team said some further implications of their work are that marketing restrictions of unhealthy foods should extend beyond television advertising; and that family-focused obesity prevention programmes should begin before children are three years of age.
"As food brand knowledge is the precursor for food requests and purchases, this study aimed to identify very young children's food brand knowledge and its social and environmental predictors," explained the research team.
"To our knowledge, this is the first comprehensive account of children's early food/drink brand knowledge development, and also the first with a clear rationale for brand selection, having chosen from food and drink brands most advertised to children (aged 4–6 years) on live television."
They noted that because previous studies have examined general consumer brands and high fat sugar and salt (HFSS) food items, the aim this time would be to focus on food brands - and select both healthy and unhealthy items.
By measuring three forms of food brand recognition and recall - naming a brand, naming a product type, and matching a logo to an image of the product - the team were able to assess how well the children recognised each brand.
"Young children had high levels of food brand recognition (image matching) but were less able to recall product types or brand names."
In addition, the team found that between three and four years of age may be the time when food brand knowledge advances significantly.
"This is before young children's understanding of healthy foods advances (between 4 and 5 years), as we found in a companion study conducted with the same group of pre-schoolers," said Tatlow-Golden and her colleagues.
Furthermore, the team reported that young children's knowledge of unhealthy food brands was substantially greater than that of healthy brands – for example at five years of age, children could recognise nearly all unhealthy, but only just over half the healthy brands.
"Does this reflect greater television advertising exposure to unhealthy brands? We do not believe so: all brands in the study were among the top 20 food, drink and fast food restaurant brands viewed ... and some healthy brands in this study had higher viewing levels (TVRs) than unhealthy brands."
Volume 80, 1 September 2014, Pages 197–203, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.05.015
"Young children's food brand knowledge. Early development and associations with television viewing and parent's diet"
Authors: Mimi Tatlow-Golden, Eilis Hennessy, Moira Dean, Lynsey Hollywood