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.
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.