Study Links Junk Food Logos To Obesity

Kids who could identify golden arches and other junk food logos had higher BMIs than their brand-ignorant peers, researchers found.

A new study shows that young children who are familiar with unhealthy food branding—McDonald’s golden arches, Trix's silly rabbit, Burger King's crown—are more likely to be overweight than their brand-ignorant peers. Studies show that people who are overweight in childhood tend to stay that way.

The researchers tested two groups of three- to five-year-olds on their knowledge of fast food and processed food brands like McDonald's, Burger King, Coke, Pepsi, Fritos, and Doritos. They found that those who could correctly identify the sugar-and-grease-mongering logos tended to have higher body mass indexes (BMIs). "We found the relationship between brand knowledge and BMI to be quite robust," said Anna McAlister, an MSU assistant professor of advertising and public relations who was a member of the research team.

McDonalds Happy Meal

The team conducted the study twice, among two groups, the first of 69 children and the second of 75 children. In the first group, they found that kids with brand knowledge who regularly exercised were less likely to be overweight than those who didn't exercise. But that finding wasn’t duplicated in the second group. "Brand knowledge was a better predictor of BMI than hours spent in front of the TV per week, which we also measured," McAlister tells Co.Design. McAlister says this inconsistency tells us that physical activity shouldn’t be seen as a cure-all in fixing childhood obesity.

The findings raise questions about just how deep an impact fast food advertising has on kids as young as three. Since the researchers didn't measure the subjects' actual consumption of food, the study doesn't explain whether the kids with higher BMIs knew so much about brands because they spend more time eating food like Happy Meals and Trix. But the research does indicate that young kids absorb information about unhealthy brands, and that the level of that information is a reliable predictor of their weight. "If you look at a who eats a lot of fast food and processed food, what that kid is learning is that food is stuff that comes in packages, that it’s colorful and bright and exciting," McAlister says. "They learn that food is branding, and they learn to prefer foods that offer a big flavor hit, high in salt and sugar and fat. Exposure to these marketing messages is very powerful."

The paper, "Children's knowledge of packaged and fast food brands and their BMI: Why the relationship matters for policy makers," was published in the June 2014 issue of Appetite.

[via MSUToday]

[Image: Cereals via Flickr user Thomas Hawk]

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  • Drew Horine

    I would question whether the kids recognize these brands because they tend to use them more often.

    In other words, brand awareness did not cause obesity. It is the result.

    No one should be surprised that children who eat more junk food tend to be overweight. If you feed your kid a disproportionate amount of fast food and sugar cereals, he will be unhealthy - and recognize the logos.

    In this case, obesity is the result of irresponsible parenting.

    Grown-ups did this. Not the child. Not the logo.

    It doesn't matter how much a child wants something they see advertised. It's our responsibility as parents to teach self-discipline. Be an adult and say "no" once in a while.

    Pointing the finger at logos and advertising is just shifting the blame.

  • I don't think anyone will be surprised by this news, but the results from this study suggest that branding can be used to combat the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, fast and packaged food brands are doing a much better job advertising to kids than more wholesome, healthful brands. Fast food advertising is targeted at kids. It's fun, colorful, energetic and it's all about the experience rather than the health benefits. Healthful food advertising is quiet and sophisticated-looking and the message is about the ingredients: what's in it, what isn't in it, blah, blah. Parents have to work to sell their kids on the healthful alternatives to junk food because wholesome brands just aren't appealing to kids. Maybe those wholesome food companies need to take a branding lesson from the fast food giants and show up as fun and delicious rather than the boring, bland alternative. - Tessa Tinney, Monaco Lange

  • Jay Wiener

    ^The study is deeply flawed; it uses the Body Mass Index, the least accurate medical tool around. For example, boys tend to have a higher BMI than girls, and it is possible that boys tend to remember junk food logos better than girls. Also, children grow in spurts, not evenly, and the samples used were too small to account for normal variations.

    As a parent, I ignore any advice from any source that uses the BMI. It's like taking advice from a horoscope column; every so often it is correct, by accident. We have much better free sources available online. The waist-to height is good for children and adults, and sites like give adults excellent scientifically accurate advice.

  • hello

    Well said. I studied sports medicine in college, and one of the first things undergrads learn is to ignore BMI. Someone with 6% body fat and a resting heart rate of 54 can be considered obese, according to BMI—can anyone explain why we're still using this metric?

  • This study which is true, explains how it should be done to prevent or control obesity, with reverse advertising. We have to get through the advertising that children and young people hate the food fattening and worship the traditional food that prevents obesity. It is the only way