Television ads for junk food often tend to make children hunger for those treats, especially if they watch a lot of television, according to a study.
The findings, published in Americal journal Pediatrics, come amid growing calls to ban junk food advertisements aimed at children in order to combat obesity. Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics, issued a policy statement on June 27 urging a ban on junk food ads.
In tests with six to 13-year-olds, researchers led by Emma Boyland from the University of Liverpool in the UK found that a DVD featuring commercials for fast food and junk food seemed to whet children’s appetites for sweet and high-fat products.
“Exposure to television food commercials enhanced high television viewers’ preferences for branded foods and increased reported preferences for all food items relative to the low television viewers,” she wrote.
The children involved in the research reported a greater desire for sweet and fatty foods after viewing the junk-food ads compared to days when they watched commercials for toys. This was especially true for children who usually watched a lot of TV in their everyday lives, with “a lot” defined by the researchers as over 21 hours a week.
On average, kids wanted more high-carb, high-fat foods after watching food commercials.
“This study confirms the cumulative, sustained effect of food marketing on TV: the more children watch TV, the more susceptible they are to advertising,” said Lori Dorfman, who directs the Berkeley Media Studies Group in California and has studied food marketing to children.
“This might not be so bad if food marketers put their best foods forward, but they don’t,” said Dorfman, who did not take part in the study.
Dorfman noted that children now watch TV on their computers and mobile gadgets as well as at home on TV, which can add up to a lot of hours. Dorfman also added that parents should limit TV time, but added that they need help.
“It’s simply not fair to expect parents alone to counter the $2 billion food companies spend each year targeting their kids with fun, irresistible ads for sugary, high-fat, salty foods,” she added.
But researchers of the study have maintained that the effects of the food ads are modest, making only a small difference in the average number of food items the children insisted of getting at that very moment. In real life, a lot of other factors also impact children’s food choices, especially parents’ willingness to buy junk food for their children.
“It will never be possible to demonstrate in an experimental study that food advertising contributes to obesity. There are simply too many variables to take into account,” Boyland said.
Nevertheless a number of other studies continue to show that children tend to eat more tasty treats after seeing ads for junk food. With older children, who often make their own food choices, this watching commercials of unhealthy food translates into more French fries and chocolate bars. But studies also suggest that young children have ‘pester power’, which they are more likely to use after watching a lot of food ads.