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Do TV commercials influence our food choices?

We’ve seen those TV commercials that show close-up shots of ice cream melting and the slow motion clips of food falling into a pan. Such ads, invariably, get us hungry or make us go on a hunt to satisfy our taste buds. But is there any scientific evidence to it? Do TV commercials influence our food choices, particularly those of children?

In a new study, titled, The Influence of Televised Food Commercials on Children’s Food Choices: Evidence from Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Activations, scheduled for publication in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers contend that children and young adults view at least 1,000-2,000 such ads every year.

During the course of the study, 23 children, 8-14 years old, rated 60 items on how healthy or tasty they were, while watching food and non-food commercials and undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The participants were instructed not to eat for 3 hours before the experiment session to ensure heightened food motivation at the time of the food decision task.

Dr. Amanda Bruce and researchers from the University of Kansas Medical Center and University of Missouri-Kansas City then targeted the region in the brain that is most active during reward valuation: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Yes, they do impact our food choices!

The researchers found that the children’s decisions were driven by tastiness rather than healthfulness. And, taste was even more important to the children after watching food commercials compared with non-food commercials.

Faster decision times (how quickly the children decided whether they wanted to eat the food item shown) also were observed after watching food commercials.

Additionally, the ventromedial prefrontal cortices of the children were significantly more active after watching food commercials.

A, vmPFC showed stronger activity when participants watched food commercials compared with none condition (baseline). B, vmPFC showed stronger activity at the time of food choice after food commercials compared with nonfood commercials. All images were thresholded at P < .05 corrected.
A, vmPFC showed stronger activity when participants watched food commercials compared with none condition (baseline). B, vmPFC showed stronger activity at the time of food choice after food commercials compared with nonfood commercials. All images were thresholded at P < .05 corrected.

 

The study notes,

“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.”

Reference:

Amanda S. Bruce, Stephen W. Pruitt, Oh-Ryeong Ha, J. Bradley C. Cherry, Timothy R. Smith, Jared M. Bruce, Seung-Lark Lim. The Influence of Televised Food Commercials on Children’s Food Choices: Evidence from Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex ActivationsThe Journal of Pediatrics, 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.06.067

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