There’s a memorable scene in the 2004 documentary Super Size Me in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock sits down with first graders in Worcester, Mass., and holds up a series of cards featuring the faces of historical figures, such as George Washington, Jesus, and then-president George W. Bush—as well as fast-food icons Wendy and Ronald McDonald. Not surprisingly, the kids are a bit fuzzy on recognizing Jesus and the presidents. But they have a slightly elevated recognition of Wendy’s red pigtails and absolutely light up when they see Ronald McDonald. One boy throws his hands up and exclaims, “I love their pancakes!”
Research shows that, like that boy, children as young as three not only recognize popular food brands but often have knowledge and preferences about the products—preferring Coke to Pepsi or McDonald’s to Burger King.
It gets worse. A soon-to-be-published paper by researchers from the University of Oregon, Michigan State University, and Ann Arbor Public Schools Preschool and Family Center reports that children who exhibit higher levels of brand awareness are more likely to be overweight or obese. Dr. T. Bettina Cornwell, a lead author on the paper and a marketing professor at the University of Oregon, says that kids who are overweight are likely to be overweight as adults, so their “first language of food” should be developed by parents leading in healthy practices—not by junk-food marketers.
“What kind of consumption patterns are we developing for a child?” she asks. “If a ‘first language’ is fruit and vegetables, that first language is what they come to expect, like, and ask for. If it is processed food—sugar, salt, and fat—that will be what they are expecting.”
For the paper's studies, researchers showed boys and girls (69 kids in Study 1 and 75 in Study 2) ages three to five pictures of items that originated from specific fast-food restaurants, as well as brand-name breakfast cereals, candy, chips, and carbonated soft drinks, to test their brand awareness. A 2011 study by the same authors found that children who had high brand knowledge tended to prefer foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. So for the new research, Cornwell and her colleagues recorded the body mass index of the children studied.
“The results varied, which is a good thing,” says Anna McAlister, a professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University and coauthor of the paper, which will be published in the journal Appetite. “Some kids knew very little about the brands, while others knew them exceptionally well.”
However, both studies found that the kids who knew more about the brands were more likely to have a higher BMI, an indicator of being overweight. Only one study showed that group exercise slightly offset the negative effects of higher junk-food-brand knowledge, indicating that physical activity may not be a cure-all for addressing obesity later in childhood. While the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data appear to show a decrease in obesity among two- to five-year-olds, the CDC reports that the obesity rate for children ages two to 19 has remained between 18 and 20 percent for more than a decade. According to the CDC, more than a third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese.
This population is often the main target for food companies. In 2012, fast-food companies spent nearly $5 billion in marketing in the United States, often targeting children and teenagers, according to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. We also know junk-food companies, like many cereal makers, use beloved cartoons and characters to appeal to children. These products, many of them unhealthy, are placed at children’s eye level in supermarkets.
Food companies follow many popular consumer trends, such as gluten-free or organic products, says Cornwell, but there needs to be a new trend that focuses on our most vulnerable. This will affect our public policy and also how we parent our children.
“We need a consumer trend of the youngest children receiving the healthiest possible diet,” she says. “What we have right now are very young children who are developing a first language of food that sets them up for a trajectory toward obesity. The best money spent is setting up a lifetime pattern of healthy eating.”