A recent study to investigate the influence food commercials on children's food choices authored by Amanda S. Bruce, Ph.D. of the University of Kansas Medical Center Department of Pediatrics asked 23 children from ages 8-14 to provide taste and health ratings for 60 food items — and it turns out that kids care more about perception of taste than about healthy food.
Then the subjects were scanned using a functional magnetic resonance imaging device while they were making food choices (eat or not eat) after watching television commercials of food and nonfood. The young ones were screened for signs of good health, corrected-to normal-eyesight, ADHD, psychiatric disorders, and neurological or metabolic conditions.
The youngsters chosen for the test were not taking psychotropic drugs and reported not having a history of lactose intolerance or allergies to any of the food items used in the research. Once eligibility was established, the children were placed in the MRI and were shown a 15-second television commercial. It was either a food ad, a nonfood advertisement, or a blank screen.
The kids were then asked to make a decision about how much they desired to eat the food presented on the screen, using a 4-point scale ("strong no," "no," "yes," "strong yes") within a time limit of four seconds.
The researchers predicted that children would commonly make their food choices by the use of taste attribute values, rather than health attribute values. And kids would more heavily rely on taste attribute values for their choices of food after watching food commercials.
The scientists observed that children's scoring of a food item's taste predicted their decision. The team was not surprised by this outcome since children lean toward picking food that is delicious in spite of its health benefits. In fact, the health ratings of the food were not predictors of young people's food choices.
The study group did find that watching food commercials increased the influence of the taste attribute further than nonfood commercials. The kids chose specific items and placed a greater emphasis on the taste attributes of those items after watching a commercial for the foods. This reaction did not occur with nonfood commercials.
Based on the research, the team's results suggested that when young ones are hungry, the effect of television food advertisements on their brains' activity may be especially pronounced.
Bruce and her team consider it possible that food commercials may increase the focus on taste and make it even more difficult for parents or other caregivers to encourage healthy food choices in the children for whom they are responsible. The results create implications for the necessity of evaluating policies that are in place related to food advertising aimed at young people.
When the time it took for kids to make a decision on foods after watching a food commercial was compared with decisions made after watching nonfood commercials, the results suggested that watching food commercials could increase the likelihood that children would make faster and more compulsive food choices.
Dr. Bruce concludes that:
"Although the current design precludes an examination, future studies should make a distinction between healthy and unhealthy food choices. Overall, our results suggest food marketing can systematically bias psychological and neurobiological mechanisms of children's food decisions."
The study was published in The Journal of Pediatrics and was entitled The Influence of Televised Food Commercials on Children's Food Choices: Evidence from Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Activations.