The frontier in the fight against childhood obesity should be pushed back to toddlers and preschoolers, a new study suggests. Researchers have found that kids ages 3-5 already have developed a taste for sugary, fatty, and salty foods, and easily recognize the brands that offer these options.
The university researchers found that very young children, once exposed to foods with high sugar, fat and salt contents, develop a palate for those foods, which are usually higher in flavor than their healthier alternatives, but are also the foods most closely linked to childhood obesity.
The study was comprised of two experiments. In the first, 67 children and their parents were asked a series of questions about what foods the children liked. Foods with added flavor, such as chips, ketchup and chocolate milk, were favorites among the children, and parent responses confirmed their children’s affinity for foods with high amounts of sugar, salt and fat.
The second experiment examined whether marketing affects children’s preferences for unhealthy foods. One hundred eight children were shown pictures of fast food and soda, and asked to determine whether the product was made by Brand A, Brand B, or not offered in fast food stores. The study found that children who were able to match the most foods and drinks with their brands were also those whose parents reported their children as having the strongest preference for sugary, fatty and salty foods.
Continue reading about the study which was conducted by researchers at the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin.
Clearly fast food companies have this all figured out! According to Fast Food FACTS: Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth (2010) children as young as age 2 are seeing more fast food ads than ever before, and restaurants rarely offer parents the healthy kids’ meal choices. The average preschooler (2-5 years) saw 2.8 TV ads for fastfood every day in 2009.
The study shows that fast food marketers target children across a variety of media and in restaurants. In addition, results point out that restaurants provide largely unhealthy defaults for the side dishes and drinks that come with kids’ meals.
All the rhetoric from the White House about good nutrition and healthy meals for school kids needs to be balanced with the means to limit the amount of advertising aimed at children and toddlers.