ISLAMABAD: Researchers have found that Food commercials directly influence children's food choices and brain activity, and they may be a factor in overeating and the associated health risks.
Junk food is a significant contributor to the skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Children are exposed to food advertising - including junk food commercials - multiple times a day.
Food marketing is cited as a substantial environmental factor in food choices and overeating, and, as a result, obesity, and TV advertising and branding have been shown to affect both food familiarity and preference.
Previous research indicates that children who view advertisements are more likely to prefer branded foods than children not exposed to advertisements. Behavioral studies have reported an association between receptivity to food commercials and the amount of food consumed.
In the new study, Bruce, together with researchers from the University of Kansas Medical Center and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, aimed to examine children's food decision processes and brain activity during active food selections.
Bruce and colleagues studied the children's brain activity - with the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) - while making food choices after watching food and non-food TV commercials.
"For brain analyses, our primary focus was on the brain region most active during reward valuation, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex," says Bruce. During the brain scan, the children were asked whether they wanted to eat the food items shown to them immediately after the commercials.
The researchers found that watching food commercials changed the way children assess the importance of taste when making food choices. The authors write: "It is possible that the food commercials prime children to focus on the more hedonic aspects of food."
"Food commercials may prompt children to consider their liking and wanting of specific food items, irrespective of the lack of any health benefits. This increased emphasis on taste may make it even more difficult for relevant caregivers to encourage healthy food choices. This evidence has implications for policies related to food advertising to children," they add.
When compared with non-food commercials, the vmPFC area of the brain that is associated with reward and value assessment showed increased activity at the time of food choice after watching food commercials. This activity indicates that food commercials stimulate children's brains in a way that non-food commercials do not.
Also, the more hunger the child reported, the greater the vmPFC activity, suggesting that when children are hungry, the effect of food commercials on brain activity may be particularly noticeable.