The research, published in Pediatrics, examined the food preferences of a group of 281 children aged six to 13 years old, finding that children who watch adverts for unhealthy food on television are more likely to want to eat high-fat and high-sugar foods, irrespective of branding.
“Obesity in young children is now a major health concern around the world. Our studies highlight that there are global connections between advertising, food preferences and consumption,” said lead author Emma Boyland, from the University of Liverpool.
“This is a beyond-brand effect, increasing children's selections of all unhealthy foods – not just those shown in adverts,” she explained.
Boyland added that the results suggest it would be beneficial to reduce the amount of television that children watch.
“These findings also have implications for the regulation of television food advertising to children. A 9pm watershed should be introduced so that children are not exposed to high fat, high sugar and high salt food advertising during popular family viewing,” she said.
The researchers showed an episode of a popular cartoon before being shown it again two weeks later. In each case, the cartoon was preceded by five minutes of commercials – one set showing toy adverts and one showing mainly snacks and fast food. After each showing the children were given lists of various food items, both branded and unbranded, and asked what they would like to eat.
Boyland and team found that after viewing the food commercials, all children selected more branded and non-branded fat-rich and carbohydrate-rich items.
The researchers also reported that children who watched the highest amounts of television selected a greater number of branded food items as compared with the low television viewers.
“Exposure to television food commercials enhanced high television viewers' preferences for branded foods and increased reported preferences for all food items (branded and non-branded) relative to the low television viewers,” concluded the researchers.
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-1859
“Food Commercials Increase Preference for Energy-Dense Foods, Particularly in Children Who Watch More Television”
Authors: E.J. Boyland, J.A. Harrold, T.C. Kirkham, C. Corker, J. Cuddy