The food industry has been under pressure to reduce the amount of advertising to children for many years, and voluntary action is already being taken by companies including Nestle and Dannon, which have signed up to a self regulation scheme to ensure products marketed towards children meet nutritional standards.
This latest study aimed to assess the influence that branding has on the quantity of food that children aged four to six choose to consume when they are free to eat as much branded or non-branded food as they like.
Initially, the study’s hypothesis was that all children, regardless of weight, would consume more when presented with branded foods, so the researchers said they were surprised when only overweight children ate more.
Forty-three children were involved in the study and they returned to the research center for lunch four times on non-consecutive days. On two of the occasions they were given familiar branded foods, such as Lunchables and Trix yogurt, and on the other two occasions, the same food was repackaged in non-branded containers. Twenty-three of the children were not overweight and twenty were overweight, classified as having a body mass index (BMI) above the 85th BMI-for-age percentile.
The study found that overweight children ate about 40 calories more when presented with popular branded foods. Conversely, children who were not overweight actually consumed about 40 calories less when food was branded. And there was also a difference between boys and girls: Girls ate about 40 calories less of the branded foods, while boys ate about 45 calories more.
The researchers also found that the children’s brand awareness was independent of whether parents reported buying a particular brand or not, suggesting that the home eating environment may not be the primary place that children become brand-aware.
“Future interventions aimed at reducing food advertising exposure among children should take this into account,” they wrote.
Efforts have increased across the industry, and across the globe, to curb the growing prevalence of obesity.
An estimated 22m children under the age of five are overweight worldwide, according to World Health Organization figures.
In the USA the number of overweight children has doubled and the number of overweight adolescents has trebled since 1980.
The study was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and a Pilot and Feasibility Grant from the New York Obesity Research Center.
Vol. 53 (2009) pp. 76–83
“Food branding influences ad libitum intake differently in children depending on weight status. Results of a pilot study”
Authors: Jamie Forman, Jason C.G. Halford, Heather Summe, Megan MacDougall, Kathleen L. Keller