Children recognize ‘unhealthy’ food more easily

Children recognize ‘unhealthy’ food more easily

FOOD: At all ages, kids were better at recognizing the less healthy foods. Photo:

By Kathryn Doyle

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – For very young children, awareness of food brands increases greatly between ages three and four and is highest for unhealthy foods, according to a new study from Ireland.

Food-brand knowledge predicts what kids will ask for later, said lead author Mimi Tatlow-Golden of the School of Psychology at University College Dublin.

The study included 172 children in Ireland, ages three to five-years-old, a quarter of whom were from Northern Ireland, where marketing regulations differ from the rest of the country.

Just over half of the kids attended school in a disadvantaged community, according to local government and education department data.

Parents filled out questionnaires about family demographics, eating habits and children’s TV viewing alone and with others.

Researchers surveyed the kids at school one at a time, showing them nine food brand logos and product images, four belonging to healthy foods and five to less healthy foods, all of which are widely advertised in Ireland.

The researchers first asked kids if they knew the brand name of a food based on the logo, then if they knew what kind of food it was, then if they could match the brand logo to a picture of the correct food product.

Kids’ scores on the brand questions rose for all types of foods between ages three and five, the authors report in the journal Appetite. On average, kids could name about a third of the brands, name the product type of half the brands and correctly match the images of almost two-thirds of the brands.

At all ages, kids were better at recognizing the less healthy foods. Their knowledge of unhealthy foods was most strongly predicted by how much unhealthy food their parents ate, and was not predicted by TV time or their mother’s education level, the researchers found.

“We definitely couldn’t conclude that marketing doesn’t work, we just need to look beyond TV,” Sandra Jones, director of the Center for Health Initiatives at the University of Wollongong in Australia, told Reuters Health.

Some of the healthy brands in the study, like Frube flavored yogurt in a tube and Cheestring string cheese, only refer to one specific food product, whereas the unhealthy brands, which included Cadbury’s, McDonalds and Coca-Cola, produce a wide range of products, she noted. This could have skewed the results, said Jones, who was not involved in the research.

Although parents’ eating habits were the most important predictor of what kids recognized, advertising affects parental eating as well, Tatlow-Golden said.

In Ireland unhealthy and healthy foods get about equal advertising airtime on TV, she said, though there are many other avenues of advertising and ways kids are exposed to brands.

“What are kids seeing with their friends at school, or seeing out on the street or seeing displayed in the store?” she said.

Fat and sugar are inherently appealing to the human palate, so even with an equal amount of exposure to both healthy and unhealthy foods, that might explain the difference in recall, she noted.

“In the states even where we’ve got some regulation happening, 80 percent of foods advertised are unhealthy,” Tatlow-Golden said. “Here it’s 50 percent, and we would say that’s still way too much.”

Advertising makes unhealthy foods seem like something kids should want and something that will make them happy, and parents often end up limiting those foods and positioning them as a “treat,” which can play into kids’ heightened awareness of things like McDonalds, Jones noted.

“When we say, ‘all that parents have to do is say no’ I think that totally oversimplifies the situation,” she said. “It’s really hard to say no.”

While we like to think our relationships to brands are logical, they are really very emotional, she said, and ubiquitous marketing starts laying the foundation for that relationship very early on. It’s a hard force for parents to try to fight, but they should in any case be aware of what’s happening, she said.

“Brands think, if you can get them when they’re young, when they’re three, you’ve got a friend for life,” Jones said.

Recent Headlines

in Black Friday, National

History of the holiday: Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving celebrations date back to the first European settlements in America, but it wasn't until the 1860s that it was declared a national holiday.

in Black Friday, National

WATCH: How holiday shopping can help charities


In the frenzy of holiday shopping, consumers are doing more than getting great deals, they’re also using coupons to help raise money for a number of worthy causes.

in Black Friday, National

Thanksgiving getaway: Cheap gas, high security


Millions of Americans embarked on their annual Thanksgiving travels on Wednesday, with security at airports, New York City's parade festivities and other venues expected to be heightened amid jitters after the Paris attacks.

in National

2015 to be the hottest year in history


This year will be the hottest on record and 2016 could be hotter due to the El Niño weather pattern, the World Meteorological Organization said.

in National, World

Many House Republicans want refugee restrictions in spending bill


Nearly one-third of the Republicans in the House of Representatives signed a letter calling on party leaders to ensure that a must-pass spending bill block any use of federal funding to resettle refugees from Syria and nearby countries.