What We Know, and Don't, About Children and Junk Food

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Last month, scientists at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity published a provocative study suggesting that kids are especially drawn to junk food when a popular cartoon character adorns the package. Researchers offered 40 children, ages four to six, identical graham crackers, gummy fruits, and carrots. One sample came in a package decorated with Scooby Doo, Dora the Explorer, or Shrek. The other had plain packaging.? Despite the fact that the food choices were identical, the majority of the kids chose the snacks with the cartoon labeling.? Most of them also said that the snacks with the cartoon character tasted better-except, of course for the carrots.

The authors interpreted their findings in policy terms, concluding that “the use of licensed characters to advertise junk food to children should be prohibited.” The media seemed to agree. The Chicago Tribune, paraphrasing the authors, wrote, “At a time when a third of all children in the U.S. are overweight or obese, the study underscores both the power of advertising to influence young children and the ineffectiveness of using the same techniques to convince them to eat more nutritious foods.”

Predictably, the Yale study attracted critics, most of whom have leveled common gripes: the sample was too small, the study wasn’t double blind, the alternative choice (plain packaging) stacked the deck toward the much livelier dominant choice, etc. Perhaps these criticisms have some merit. But they all miss something fundamental. The Yale study, which no doubt was undertaken with considerable care, nevertheless threatens to distract us from the more amorphous causes of obesity, causes that are only peripherally (at best) related to the cynical manner in which marketers try to win the hearts, minds, and palates of our children-and causes that, unfortunately, are much harder to fix.

Allow me to make my point elliptically. When I was reading the Yale study, I could hear my two kids-ages six and eight-playing with their two friends-also six and eight-out in the yard. They’d placed a bamboo pole across two lawn chairs and were attempting to hurdle it.? True, my sample of four subjects is only ten percent of the Yale study’s sample, and true, there was certainly nothing double blind about my study, but what the heck: I decided to undertake a home-grown research project.

“Hey, guys, can I ask you about why you want the foods you want at the grocery store?,” I asked.? I was immediately confronted with a chorus of suspicion: “Why do you want to know?” “Why are you asking?” “Who cares?” An ornery subject set, this group.

Once assured that my motives were in the interest of science, the young skeptics opened up. Why did they pick certain foods over others (or at least attempt to)? One respondent, age eight, explained that he chose food that “looks yummy and fruity-snacky.” Another, also age eight, gravitated towards food she knew “would be yummier than what I’m having for dinner.” The eight-year-olds, who were clearly accustomed to reading labels, were attracted to hyphenations such as “strawberry-vanilla” (as, for example, with yogurt).? The six-year olds were less forthcoming: one said she wanted food that “looks yummy.” Another stared at me blankly and said she had no idea what I was talking about.

“What if there was a cartoon character on the label?” I asked. “Would that help you choose?”? This is where things got interesting. ?”I don’t trust wrapping,” declared the female representative. The eight-year old male concurred, adding, “they just show it [the cartoon] because they want people to buy it [the product].” Even my six-year old daughter considered the cartoon label with a skunk eye. “There might be something in it I don’t know about and don’t like.” She simply wanted food that was “nutritious and joooo-ceeee.” [Research note: I asked my daughter this question a day later, to ensure that she wouldn't be influenced by the answers of her wizened peers.]

So that was my study. Seemingly haphazard as they are, my subjects’ rapid-fire responses offer a wealth of suggestive evidence about the deeper causes of obesity, ones that force us to rethink the ultimate significance of cartoons and labeling. What struck me first about the kids’ answers was the instinctive and repeated emphasis on taste. There’s nothing refined about juvenile taste buds. Like most kids, my research subjects eat junk food with regularity and enthusiasm. Within twenty-four hours after my survey, they’d consumed an impressive smorgasbord of trash, including jelly beans, ice cream, hot dogs, bubble gum, and chocolate candy (okay, we are on vacation).? There’s a reason why, when celebrity-chef Jamie Oliver convinced English schools to serve healthy food, almost a half million children quit the lunch programs while the most enterprising among them initiated a black market in “crisps.” Point being, no amount of marketing, preaching, or nagging will change the fundamental truth that “fruity-snacky” or “joooo-ceee” is nirvana to the sensory world of nearly every child.

The kids in my study are thin.? Understanding why this is so, in spite of their predilection for junk food, requires placing their affinity for junk food in a larger perspective-one hinted at in their comments. The response about eating food that would be “yummier than what I’m having for dinner” gets at something critical: the snacks that these kids crave, and often consume, are intuitively understood as a relative rarity in their dietary universe.? They’ve been consciously and subconsciously browbeaten by their parents, teachers, and peers toward the basic tenets of a decent diet, one that stresses the utmost importance of moderation when it comes to the jelly beans and hot dogs, and one that will likely further minimize junk, and emphasize the healthy stuff, as the kids get older.

In many cases, this soft education appeals directly to a child’s self-interest-if they eat crap, they are taught, they will feel like crap-which is generally true. It matters very little to these kids what cartoon characters decorate their chocolate milk box. The entirety of their diet has little to do with the nature of their cravings or the irresistible allure of packaging. It has everything to do, though, with their socio-economic status, the level of education attained by their parents, and all the myriad and subtle factors that accompany these weighty and politically relevant measures. And this, in a nutshell, is what makes obesity such a daunting — if not insurmountable — challenge to public health. The causes of the expanding waistlines of American youth have roots entangled with the amorphous forces of history, economics, and technology-factors that, I suspect, no simple policy initiative can meaningfully nail down and manipulate.

Making matters more daunting is the fact that there’s also a very good possibility that obesity has relatively little to do with food choice. When we talk about solving the problem of obesity, we’re talking, in essence, about creating a multi-faceted culture-one that, broadly conceived, not only greets corporate attempts to dominate our personal food choices with steely skepticism (“I don’t trust wrappers . .”), and not only situates junk food in a healthy context, but one that places paramount value on physical activity. The cultural barriers to becoming obese rise considerably when kids are physically engaged with the world. It surely helps kids to stay active (although by no means ensures it) if they live with two parents, if at least one of them has enough leisure time to ferry them to and from sporting events, if the parents themselves exercise regularly, and if they can provide access to safe spaces where kids can run around. One is tempted to say that a childhood nurtured with constant physical activity renders food a minor factor when it comes to the confounding matter of getting fat.

But here’s the catch: a genuine culture, much less one whose habits minimize the chances of becoming obese, is extremely hard-if not impossible-to shape through direct policy measures.? Which brings us back to the issue of cartoon labeling. My problem with the nature of the Yale study is not that it identified and empirically confirmed what seems to be a viable connection between labeling and food choice. It’s that the message likely will, in the realm of critical public opinion, become little more than a red herring. Outraged consumers crave single, verifiable enemies when we seek blame for a crisis as costly and heart-rending as obesity. How satisfying it is to direct our anger at a single guilty culprit: in this case, feckless food marketers who exploit cartoon characters to make kids fat. The problem, though, is that taking those characters off food labels would do a better job of assuaging our anti-corporate anger than it would of shrinking the waistlines of our ballooning children.

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  1. Tim says:

    Where are these kids getting the income to purchase their own treats? Oh, it’s the parents who buy them.

    Are the parents attracted to packaging with cartoons on them? Oh, they just can’t say no.

    I agree with you completely. The problem of childhood obesity lies chiefly with the parents, not the corporations. It is always easier to pass the blame off on someone else.

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  2. Tzimiskes says:

    I’m not sure I agree with your analysis. Sure, it’s true that in the presence of parent’s with a strong culture that focuses on the things that make success in a western context possible kids usually turn out ok.

    The question is what is happening with kids that are growing up in more troubled contexts where parents don’t already live in a cultural context that virtually assures success. The problem often involves disrupted families that don’t have the secure social and cultural background to reinforce good habits. In the lack of this strong and successful cultural context what elements are serving to form the culture these kids are growing up in when their natural environment is a much weaker culture? This is where advertising is playing a role, in weak cultural contexts. Marketing isn’t problematic when there is a strong social and cultural context like you have in your typical middle class family. It also won’t impact immigrant families with strong cultural berings. It does effect more disrupted families that lack this strong cultural background.

    So, if what you’re saying is we need to give these kids from less privliged backgrounds a strong culture I’d agree. But this isn’t easy and won’t happen by just leaving things be. It takes effort and recognition that in weaker cultural contexts the media, marketing, and other forms of cultural influence do form culture and behavior in ways that they don’t in more heavily inculturated groups. Just because this isn’t a problem in your strong encultared family grouping doesn’t mean it isn’t in other cultural contexts. Policy is of course a very, very weak alternative but I’m not sure what else we have. Culture is ultimately largely about restrictions, self-imposed or from above. In the absence of self-imposed enculturation and restriction we need to seriously reflect on what we can do given the weak policy tools we actually do have.

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  3. Justin James says:

    Oh, there IS a simple, direct policy or three that would resolve the obesity problem. It’s just that it is completely illegal and would only be befitting of a totalitarian government: forbid the sales of fast food, pre-made food, pre-processed food, etc. Reduce the store shelves to carrying raw ingredients. No sauces or flavoring packets, just the base spices to make sauces (in other words, don’t carry spaghetti sauce, just carry tomatoes, basil, oregano, salt, pepper). Other than a few select products (pasta, bread), do not allow any food products with more than one ingredient.

    You will see a very slim nation then. Like I said, you *can* fix this with with a direct policy. You just won’t like it. :)

    J.Ja

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  4. Bob says:

    You make far too much sense. Advocating personal parental responsibility is a losing tactic. We apparently still want a Nanny State. We may not get there but the ‘skinny’ kids amongst us will. That Happy Meals are getting banned in CA is proof of our collective stupidity. Blame the Boogie Man and pass the potato chips.

    Great piece of clear writing. Thanks.

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  5. keith says:

    Is the inverse true?

    Is there better compliance with taking one-a-day vitamins if the kids get “Flintstones” as opposed to Rite-Aid?

    Would there be a measurable, cost-effective public health benefit (I’m thinking, along the lines of the complete use of a series of antibiotics, helping prevent the development of superbugs) if all Augmentin and other similar children’s-ear-infection antibiotics were packaged in cartoon character containers?

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  6. DanInesanto says:

    One thing I would like to see in the study is a comparison between packaging with popular cartoon characters and packaging with brightly colored shapes and/or generic cartoon characters.

    Having packaging that is bland grey/silver (or whatever) being compared to brightly colored packaging (regardless of specific decorations) doesn’t seem quite even. Take the bright, popular cartoon packaging and compare it with bright, generic cartoon labeling. I don’t think it would reduce the disparity to zero, but it might lessen it some.

    I agree with the article here, but just commenting on the study, there is some room for further investigation along these lines.

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  7. ACW says:

    Oh, #5, the last thing you want to do is promote the tendency to fling antibiotics at every bug — it doesn’t prevent the development of superbugs, it leads to them.

    As for cartoon-character packaging of drugs, bad idea. There are already too many accidental poisonings of kids who glug down the cherry-flavoured cough syrup (including kids who are old enough to know better but trying to get high). Packaging children’s meds to be attractive is asking for overdoses. Medication should be packaged forbiddingly — and it should taste like medicine, not candy.

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  8. BMF says:

    Curious whether the children in the study (and children in general) would be less obese had they chosen the gummy fruits, graham crackers, and carrots without the cartoon labelling.

    I have yet to start letting my children do the grocery shopping – granted they are only 2 – so this isn’t a problem. I guess this will change when they are 4 to 6?

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