It's no secret that kids gravitate toward junk foods. But food marketing might be manipulating young minds even more than previously thought. A new study reveals that watching junk food advertisements makes children desire unhealthy foods, and causes them to make faster, more impulsive decisions about what they're eating.
The study: Researchers asked 23 children (ages 8 to 14) to rate 60 food items (30 healthy foods and 30 unhealthy foods) based on how tasty and healthy they were. Next, researchers analyzed MRIs of the children's brains as they watched junk food ads and nonfood ads, focusing on the part of the brain that's active during reasoning and decision-making, Dr. Amanda Bruce, a researcher, told the Journal of Pediatrics. Next, the children rated the 60 food items again.
The result: The children favored taste over health in general. But their preference for taste became increased after viewing the food commercials. The research noted that watching the food ads changed the way the kids assessed the taste of products. The reason? The commercials compelled kids to focus on the hedonic aspects of food — aka, how delicious a burger or glazed donut tastes.
What's more, researchers found that kids were even more susceptible to the food ads when they were hungry. Makes sense — it's hard to resist the siren call of candy lurking near a cash register when you've got a rumbly tummy.
The huge, fat problem: The food commercials' influence on children might make it hard for parents and caregivers to convince kids to eat veggies and other nutritious foods, researchers wrote.
On Thursday, the American Heart Association recently revealed that a whopping 91% of American kids don't have healthy diets, U.S. News and World Report said, noting that sugary desserts and drinks add empty calories to children's diets. And those poor diets spell disaster for America's youth — less than 1% of children in the U.S. meet the organization's standards for cardiovascular health.
The current study revealed how food ad spots can hijack a child's brain, and previous research has found a link between TV and poor health in kids. According to the American Psychological Association, the rate of obesity increases for children who watch more TV, and TV food ads are a risk factor for obesity.
It's not just glamour shots of burgers and fries that are brainwashing kids: On top of ubiquitous food ads on TV and online, tons of pop stars and professional athletes promote sugary food and drink like Pepsi and Gatorade — products that can harm their young fans, Mic previously reported. And unfortunately, kids who are under 8 years old don't understand the persuasive power of advertising.
In a similar vein to the aforementioned study, could young brains be manipulated for good by health food companies? Join us in dreaming of a future where the sight of a protein-packed Greek yogurt can incite dairy cravings in young Americans.
Because real talk: Commercials for sugary cereals like Lucky Charms sure make the food seem magically delicious, but children don't really get that marshmallows aren't magically nutritious.