New data published in Appetite has suggested that children who are familiar with ‘unhealthy’ branding are more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI), and may be more likely to remain overweight throughout later life as a result.
Led by Dr Anna McAlister from Michigan State University, the team tested kids on their knowledge of various brands – including their ability to identify items such as golden arches, silly rabbits and a king's crown – and found that those who could identify them the most tended to have higher body mass indexes, or BMIs.
"We found the relationship between brand knowledge and BMI to be quite robust," said, an MSU assistant professor of advertising and public relations who was a member of the research team. "The kids who know most about these brands have higher BMIs."
Professor Bettina Cornwell from the University of Oregon, co-author of the paper, noted that the findings provide more insight into children's relationship with food, or their ‘first language of food.’
It doesn't take long, she said, for children to figure out what they like and don't like something that can stick with them their entire lives.
"What we're trying to show here is just how young kids are when they develop their theory of food," McAlister said. "As early as 3 years of age, kids are developing a sense of what food means to them."
“These findings suggest that policy to address this problem needs to focus on marketplace product offerings in addition to marketplace communications,” said the research team – noting that previous research has suggested that children with a high BMI at a young age are likely to have a higher risk of obesity and related health conditions in later life.
“It is important that parents and caregivers understand the powerful link between child food consumption patterns and BMI and patterns in adulthood,” they added.
The children – aged between three and five – were tested by being given pictures of unhealthy food-related logos. They then were given pictures of food items, packaging and cartoon characters and asked to match the items with their corresponding brand logos.
"The results varied, which is a good thing," explained McAlister. "Some kids knew very little about the brands while others knew them exceptionally well."
Doing the study twice, the research team found that among one group exercise tended to offset the negative effects of too much familiarity with unhealthy food. However, that finding could not be duplicated in the second group, they said.
"The inconsistency across studies tells us that physical activity should not be seen as a cure-all in fixing childhood obesity," warned McAlister. "Of course we want kids to be active, but the results from these studies suggest that physical activity is not the only answer.”
She warned that the ‘consistent’ relationship between brand knowledge and BMI suggests that limiting advertising exposure may also be a step in the right direction.
"From our results," she said, "it would suggest that it's not the TV time itself, but rather what is learned about these brands. It's probably the developing food knowledge, not the sedentary lifestyle."
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.06.017
“Children's Knowledge of Packaged and Fast Food Brands and their BMI: Why the Relationship Matters for Policy Makers”
Authors: T. Bettina Cornwell, Anna R McAlister, Nancy Polmear-Swendris