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Let's Ban Food and Beverage Ads! We Can Eat When We Are Hungry and Drink When We Are Thirsty Like Nature Intended

05/20/2014 01:28 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2014
  • Jeff Ritterman, MD Vice President of the Board of Directors, San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility
DNY59 via Getty Images

There is a national discussion about the impact of advertising junk food to our children. Public health authorities have pointed out the harm being done. The food and beverage industry claims that voluntary self-regulatory measures adequately protect our children. The World Health Organization, the UN's health arm, argues that "for the purpose of substantially reducing the volume and impact of commercial promotion of food and beverages to children, self-regulation is not sufficient."

The WHO is unequivocal in its view:

The marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages with a high content of fat, sugar or salt reaches children throughout the world. Efforts must be made to ensure that children everywhere are protected against the impact of such marketing and given the opportunity to grow and develop in an enabling food environment -- one that fosters and encourages healthy dietary choices and promotes the maintenance of healthy weight.

Just how big a problem is the marketing of food and beverages to children? According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University:

The food industry spends $1.8 billion per year in the U.S. on marketing targeted to young people. The overwhelming majority of these ads are for unhealthy products, high in calories, sugar, fat, and/or sodium. The average U.S. child sees approximately 13 food commercials every day, or 4,700 a year; and teens see more than 16 per day, or 5,900 in a year. The food products advertised most extensively include high-sugar breakfast cereals, fast food and other restaurants, candy, and sugary drinks. In comparison, children see about one ad per week for healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, and bottled water.

$1.8 billion a year can buy a lot of influence. The National Cancer Institute spent $2 million at the peak of its "5-a-day fruit and vegetable program." The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's $100 million per-year commitment to reverse the child obesity trend is the single largest effort of its type in history. The food industry spends significantly more than that every month, marketing primarily junk foods directly to youth, just in the United States.

Many health authorities believe that the unhealthy food messages that children receive from food advertising are a leading cause of excess calories in children. Research studies provide strong support. Children exposed to food advertising while watching television ate 45 percent more junk food than children who watched the same TV program with non-food ads. At that rate, a child exposed to TV with food ads for 30 minutes a day would gain almost 10 pounds a year, unless the increased junk food snacking was offset by reduced consumption of other foods or increased physical activity.

With the rising popularity of social media and video games, the food and beverage industry madmen have found wholly new ways to reach and influence our children and youth. Have you heard of advergames? They are video games with advertisements embedded. They can be found on the web pages of food and beverage companies.

Researchers from the Rudd Center at Yale have shown that over a million children visit these websites each month and spend up to one hour monthly on some of the sites. The websites promote candy, high-sugar cereal and fast food.

The Rudd Center researchers designed an experiment to measure children's consumption of unhealthy snacks after playing the advergames. Those children exposed to advergames with unhealthy food messages embedded (Pop-Tarts and Oreos advergames) ate 56 percent more junk food after playing than those who played an advergame with embedded ads for fruit (Dole advergame).

A recent study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, showed similar findings. The researchers found that advergames that promote junk food led to increased caloric intake. In addition, those children who were identified as the most impulsive were unable to control their eating after playing the game, even when promised a reward if they refrained from eating.

The evidence that food and beverage ads aimed at children leads to increased consumption seems firmly established. The corollary is that a decrease in food and beverage advertising should lead to less junk food consumption. Research done in Quebec, where there has been a children's food advertising ban since 1980, has shown exactly that.

The Quebec Consumer Protection Act bans advertising to children under the age of thirteen. Under the Act,

Toys and children's fast food cannot be advertised during children's programs on television or in newspapers, magazines, or in any other media targeting children. The law applies to both print and electronic media.

Researchers in Quebec looked at fast-food consumption as a measure of excess calories. Prior research had shown that frequent fast-food ingestion by 11- to 18-year-olds resulted in marked increases in weekly caloric intake. Boys who frequented fast-food restaurants consumed more than 800 extra calories weekly. Girls consumed an extra 660 calories each week. Other research showed that 4- to 7-year-olds who regularly frequented fast-food restaurants were twice as likely to be obese as those who did not.

The Quebec researchers compared several populations in Quebec with their counterparts in Ontario. They concluded:

The current study provides evidence that a ban on advertising targeting children can be effective in lowering or moderating consumption, and estimates of the effect in expenditures suggest that the social-welfare impact of such a ban can be significant.

Interestingly, the Quebec law was not popular with consumers when first enacted, but public opinion is now significantly in favor. Given that there is only this one study, it is impossible to draw firm conclusions. But it is interesting to note that "the combined overweight/obesity rate among 2- to 17-year-olds in Quebec is significantly below the national level."

Quebec is not alone. Both Norway and Sweden have instituted similar bans.

The evidence supports the hypothesis that food ads targeting children are causing increased consumption of unhealthy foods. The science also supports the notion that banning the food ads results in healthier food choices.

But what about adults? Interestingly, there has been little attention paid by the scientific community to the impact of food ads on adults.

The food and beverage industry seems convinced that their ads result in an increase in sales of their products. A thirty-second Super Bowl ad costs $4 million and companies compete for that opportunity.

What does the science say? Researchers from the Rudd Center compared adults who watched a TV show with food commercials to those who watched the same show with non-food commercials. Those who watched the food ads ate significantly more. The men and those women who were on diets consumed the most in response to the food ads. Interestingly, the participants in the experiment were not aware that they were affected. Hunger was not a factor. Participants who viewed the food ads ate significantly more whether they were hungry or not. The effects persisted for some time after the TV show was over.

The authors of the Rudd study recommend ways in which adults can potentially inoculate themselves against the unconscious "mental contamination" caused by food ads. They point out that:

As most adults in our study did not recognize the potential influence of food advertising on their eating behaviors, increased awareness will be an important first step.

In summary, the research on adults, while sparse, supports the hypothesis that food ads result in excess caloric consumption. The research also demonstrated that many of these unhealthy eating behaviors are beyond our conscious awareness.

Why is food advertised at all? We are going to eat anyway. The USDA's Economic Research Service estimates that per capita caloric intake increased by 530 calories between 1970 and 2000. It is those extra calories that demonstrate the "success" of the advertising. There is clearly a large mismatch between calories sold and calories needed.

How does this mismatch occur? What controls our eating behavior? We are the inheritors of a finely tuned metabolic system, which evolved over eons of evolutionary time. Our physiology contains a wisdom that we are just beginning to understand. Food ads are developed with the intent of subverting this physiology in order to get us to eat and drink more than we need.

The research shows that eating junk food in response to food ads happens regardless of whether or not we are hungry. Hunger is nature's way of telling us that we are energy deficient and should eat. The "genius" of advertising is that we eat even when we are not hungry and we do so without even being consciously aware of our eating behavior.

Advertisers also take advantage of our sense of thirst. We evolved to drink water to maintain our body's fluid balance. Now we "open happiness" and "live for now" as the soft drink ads tell us to do. Since these sugary drinks do not produce fullness, they bypass a key component of our energy balance system and their calories are not offset by subsequent decreases in consumption. In addition, the excess sugar floods the liver with such a large dose of fructose that our liver's only option is to convert it to unhealthy fats.

Experts have recommended that both adults and children be educated in media awareness and media literacy in order to better protect ourselves against food ads which promote excess consumption of foods and drinks with little to no nutritional value. Is this really the very best we can do to protect public health? We now have evidence that excess sugar is linked to tooth decay, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, cancer and fatty liver disease. Most beverages and foods advertised are loaded with sugar, raising the question of whether these food ads border on criminality.

We live in a country where we cherish freedom of speech. But even freedom of speech has its limits. We know that we can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater, or speak in a way that violates the rights of others. Should food companies be allowed to expose us, and our children, to ads aimed at increasing their profits even when those ads cause diabetes and heart attacks?

We should not underestimate the power of these food ads. I can still remember that "Wonderbread builds strong bodies in eight ways" from watching The Howdy Doody Show in the 1950s. We also shouldn't underestimate the talent and intelligence of those tasked with getting us to buy the products they advertise. I can also recite the jingle, "brusha, brusha, brusha with the new Ipana" even though Ipana toothpaste has been off of the U.S. market since the 1970s. The world-famous beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, worked on the Ipana "brusha, brusha, brusha" campaign as a market researcher.

Now, each of us and each of our children must match our wits with the highly paid madmen and their teams of psychologists. It would be a lot wiser and much healthier to simply ban the advertising of food and beverages.

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