Brand-specific effects: Exposure to sugary foods advertising strongly influences children’s diets, research warns

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09 Jan 2019 --- Children exposed to television adverts that promote high-sugar cereals are more likely to eat the brands of cereals they have seen advertised, a new study has found. Researchers have previously shown that children will request and prefer brands they have seen recently advertised on TV, but until now no study had tested the exposures' impact on children’s diets in a real-world setting.

The study sought to close this research gap, and concluded that the marketing of nutritionally-low foods may contribute to poor quality diets and obesity among children. The researchers are now calling for the reduced marketing of high-sugar foods to children.

“An important and novel aspect of our study is that we were able to look at brand-specific effects. In other words, does advertising for ‘Brand X’ cereal relate to an increased intake of ‘Brand X’ cereal?” says Jennifer Emond, PhD, member of the Cancer Control research program at Dartmouth's Norris Cotton Cancer Center and Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Data Science Geisel School of Medicine.

The study computed childrens’ TV advert exposure based on the TV shows they watched on children's network TV. Emond's team purchased an advertising database and counted, by brand, the cereal adverts that aired on the children's TV network programs each child watched. Parents were asked about the shows their children watched and what cereals they ate in the past week, every eight weeks, for one year.

“We found that kids who were exposed to TV ads for high-sugar cereals aired in the programs they watched were more likely to subsequently eat the cereals they had seen advertised,” explains Emond. “Our models accounted for several children, parent and household characteristics, and whether the child ate each cereal before the study started. We were able to isolate the effect of cereal advertisement exposure on the intake of cereals, independent of all of those other factors.”

The study is the first naturalistic study to show a direct and concerning link between children’s’' exposure to TV ads for high-sugar cereal and their subsequent intake of that cereal, according to the researchers.

Children's eating habits develop during preschool years and children who are overweight by the age of five are likely to remain overweight into adolescence and adulthood, the researchers note. Sugar intake levels can also be well above recommended daily intake (RDI) in children. In the UK, recent Public Health England (PHE) findings have pulled attention sharply back to the sugar reduction agenda. Included in the findings was, that by the age of ten, children have already exceeded the maximum recommended sugar intake for an 18-year-old.

“One factor believed to contribute to children's poor quality diets is the marketing of nutritionally-poor foods directly to children,” adds Emond.

“Brands specifically target children in their advertising knowing that children will ask their parents for those products.”

Researchers are now calling for efforts to be directed toward promoting and supporting quality diets at a young age to foster the lifestyle behaviors needed to maintain a healthy weight, avoid obesity and thereby, mitigate the risk of many cancers. 

Edmond notes the importance of policy in public health strategy: “There are policy-level actions that could be implemented to reduce children's exposure to food marketing and to improve the quality of the foods marketed to kids. And we as parents have the choice to switch to ad-free TV for our children and ourselves.”

Reducing the marketing of high-sugar foods to children may ultimately improve diet quality and reduce the risk of obesity and related chronic diseases among children at the population level, the study concludes.

A few months ago the announced UK a ban on junk food advertisements across the capital’s public transportation network, Transport for London (TfL). The scheme is backed by an array of health institutions, professionals and research studies, as well as by Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, who describes it as an “important step in the right direction.”

London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, said at the time that: “Reducing exposure to junk food advertising has a role to play in this – not just for children, but parents, families and carers who buy food and prepare meals,” and “tougher action” is required. 

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