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Food ads need to be better regulated

Published September 04. 2010 09:00AM

Let's take a popular, locally made beverage, Zimmerman's Iced Tea, and perform a taste test outside a store that attracts a diverse clientele, such as the Walmart on 443 in Lehighton. We'll give adult volunteers a half-pint carton of Zimmy's and an unmarked half-pint carton of iced tea and ask them to decide which tastes better.

Only we'll pull a trick on them.

We'll have filled Zimmerman's Iced Tea in the unmarked cartons.

Out of 100 adult volunteers, how many do you think would recognize that there's no difference in the taste? Five? Ten?

More importantly, how many would actually believe they tasted a difference because of product familiarity, expectation, or whatever and claim the labeled Zimmerman's Iced Tea was better than the unmarked Zimmerman's?

When a similar taste test was performed with McDonald's French Fries and three-to-five year olds, nearly six times as many children preferred the McDonald's French Fries served from the container with the McDonald's logo on it. This preference for the food from a known manufacturer is called branding and why mega companies spend millions of dollars a year in advertising.

With children, teenagers, and adults, it pays off.

But parents need to be especially aware of how powerful food marketing can be on young children, as a recent Yale University study has shown. Researchers there found candy and graham crackers became even more appealing to four-to-six year olds simply if the packaging was adorned with stickers of popular cartoon characters.

Additionally, the children not only preferred the packaging, but also claimed the the sugary snacks tasted better even though the only difference in the taste test was the packaging.

According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, the practice of having cartoon characters or celebrities hawk a food product aimed at children or adding toys to the packaging increased by 78 percent from 2006 to 2008. In fact, according to a Federal Trade Commission report, food companies spent more than $350 million a year on toy giveaways in the United States in 2008 alone.

These trends along with what the Center for Science in the Public Interest has called "inherently deceptive" advertising caused the CSPI in June to threaten a lawsuit against McDonald's.

While the CSPI has a legitimate point a number of states have consumer protection laws that are seemingly being violated by toy giveaways their left-of-center approach often lacks tact. For instance, Stephen Gardner, the litigation director for the CSPI, has called using toys to market "junk food" to children "creepy and predatory," and McDonald's "the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children."

As a result, there's been a wave of anti-CSPI sentiment, and a drove of the-problem-is-permissive-parents articles, but there's ample research to say that the latter isn't the case. In fact, what the research suggests is that there should be limits on all food advertising not just advertising targeting children.

Previous Yale University research published in 2009 by Health Psychology found that "advertising during TV viewing may also contribute to obesity by triggering automatic snacking of available food."

Take a moment to ponder that. That means that not only does constant exposure to one type of ad lead to branding, but also that the cumulative effect of advertising goes beyond brand preference and even beyond food preference.

See ads and suddenly you want to eat. Sounds like a type of brainwashing to me.

And if you think that I'm resorting to hyperbole, consider another component of the McDonald's "branding" research mentioned earlier.

The 63 children who served as subjects also taste tested foods other than French fries, most of them McDonald's products. But even when researchers used an item McDonald's doesn't sell carrots of all things! those in the McDonald's packaging were preferred.

More than two and a half to one.

If that doesn't attest to a type of brainwashing, all it can be is something potentially worse: that the children's perception of taste was actually altered through advertising.

That possibility is one reason why a 2004 task force created by the American Psychological Association suggested a ban on advertising junk food to children, calling the practice "inherently unfair" because children do not understand the "persuasive intent," a claim backed by a number of studies that show children under the age of eight do not understand the objective of advertising.

Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden do not permit any commercial sponsorship of children's programing, with the last two forbidding any advertising at all to be directed to children under 12.

But even if food commercials don't lead to brainwashing, the bottom line from the 2009 Yale study shows that they lead to kids eating a lot.

The children studied consumed 45 percent more food when exposed to food advertising and the studied adults ate more, too and these results were not related to hunger or "other conscious influences."

In other words, a well-done commercial can create what other researchers have called "hedonic hunger," the desire or even need to eat when you are not in caloric deficit.

If a well-crafted commercial is capable of that, don't we need to regulate the ones advertising foods known to be bad for us?

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