Study Links Kids' Knowledge of Unhealthy Food Logos with Obesity

Posted on: July 8, 2014

Anna McAlisterAnna McAlister, Assistant Professor of Advertising + Public Relations, is part of a research team studying children's knowledge of various food brand logos and other images from fast-food restaurants, sodas and not-so-healthy snack foods, which found the more familiar children were with unhealthy food brands, the higher their body mass index, or BMI.

"We found the relationship between brand knowledge and BMI to be quite robust," McAlister said. "The kids who know most about these brands have higher BMIs."

The findings recently were published in the journal Appetite in the article "Children's Knowledge of Packaged and Fast Food Brands and Child BMI: Why the Relationship Matters for Policy Makers."

As part of the study, children - ages 3 to 5 - were tested by showing them pictures of unhealthy food-related logos. They then were given pictures of food items, packaging and cartoon characters and asked to match the items with their corresponding brand logos.

"The results varied, which is a good thing," McAlister said. "Some kids knew very little about the brands while others knew them exceptionally well."

Doing the study twice, the research team found that among one group exercise tended to offset the negative effects of too much familiarity with unhealthy food. However, that finding could not be duplicated in the second group.

"The inconsistency across studies tells us that physical activity should not be seen as a cure-all in fixing childhood obesity," McAlister said. "Of course we want kids to be active, but the results from these studies suggest that physical activity is not the only answer. The consistent relationship between brand knowledge and BMI suggests that limiting advertising exposure might be a step in the right direction too."

Because kids get most of their food messages from television, the question is what causes more harm - the sedentary lifestyle brought on by too much time in front of the TV or the unhealthy food messages kids are bombarded with?

"From our results," McAlister said, "it would suggest that it's not the TV time itself, but rather what is learned about these brands. It's probably the developing food knowledge, not the sedentary lifestyle."

University of Oregon professor and co-author of the paper, Bettina Cornwell, noted that the findings provide more insight into children's relationship with food, or their "first language of food." It doesn't take long, she said, for children to figure out what they like and don't like, something that can stick with them their entire lives.

"What we're trying to show here is just how young kids are when they develop their theory of food," McAlister said. "As early as 3 years of age, kids are developing a sense of what food means to them."

McAlister, who has been an Assistant Professor at MSU since January 2012, is a consumer behavior expert. Her special interest is the study of children as consumers, including children's knowledge of food brands and their responses to food advertising.

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