From cheeseburgers to milkshakes, new research has revealed that junk food ads manipulate teens into eating unhealthy food, prompting health experts to demand a crackdown on fast food marketing that targets kids and teens.
The research by University of Michigan psychologists adds further weight to claims that food advertising is a major contributor to obesity, and highlights fast food restaurants as the biggest culprits.
Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition this month, the study showed that teenagers were particularly susceptible to unhealthy food ads.
The study showed that viewing commercials for unhealthy foods resulted in teens eating more junk food in a simulated fast food restaurant.
Push to protect young people from predatory marketing
In response to the study, Australian health experts have demanded a crackdown on fast food marketing that targets teens and kids.
VicHealth and the Obesity Policy Coalition called for a restriction on unhealthy food and drink advertising during peak viewing times for kids on television and social media, restrictions to make sport and major community events free from unhealthy food and drink sponsorship, and mandatory regulation to stop unhealthy advertising in government-owned spaces like train and bus stations.
“Government controls have been introduced in other countries, such as Chile – we should also be ensuring that we protect our kids from the unhealthy influence of the food and drink industry," Obesity Policy Coalition executive manager Jane Martin said.
In August, a global study revealed junk food is causing a public health crisis in Australia and around the world that will lead to a “tsunami” of obesity and diet-related disease.
In Australia, an estimated 28 per cent of Australian children and adolescents are overweight or obese.
It’s time we put our kids’ health above the profits of the unhealthy food industry,’’ VicHealth’s Kirstan Corben said.
"Fast food advertising is rampant and incessant, and this research shows how it leads to kids’ eating more unhealthy food.
"These companies spend millions on advertising, promotions and sponsorships and they do it because it leads to more kids and teenagers eating their unhealthy products."
Fast food ads target ‘reward centres’ of young brains
Fast food ads work by targeting the 'reward centres' of young brains, leading to increased consumption of fast food, the study showed.
Teens who experienced more neural activation in their brain's reward centre – a region associated with visual attention to unhealthy fast food commercials – while watching junk food ads had greater fast food intakes, while those who showed less activation had more healthier food intake.
The study also showed that fast food ads for healthier options, such as salads and smoothies, still used branding and logos associated with predominantly unhealthy foods such as burgers and fries, which led teens to crave unhealthy food rather than the healthier option depicted.
Fast food ads are so powerful it is difficult for young people to guard against them, according to the study's lead author, University of Michigan associate professor of psychology Ashley Gearhardt.
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“The ability of fast food commercials to prime these brain systems, potentially outside of the conscious awareness, may make it particularly challenging for adolescents to defend themselves against the negative effects of food marketing,” she said.
Teens are a major advertising target for the food industry and they receive little protection.’’
Curbing the amount of junk food advertising young people consume is key to improving health, Associate Professor Gearhardt said.
Our results suggest that fast food restaurants adding more advertisements for healthier foods is unlikely to protect adolescents,’’ she said.
"Reducing the overall amount of food advertising viewed by teens is an important target for improving health.”