The ‘surprising’ way food ads sway preschoolers’ snacking habits

Story highlights

About 40% of food and drink ads that kids see on TV are for unhealthy snacks

But such marketing can be effective in boosting healthy eating habits, too

CNN  — 

Snack commercials that kids see on television may be more persuasive than you might think.

The food advertisements that children as young as preschool age view while watching their favorite shows can sway them to overeat even when they’re not hungry, a new study suggests.

The small study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday, is the first of its kind to weigh the effect that food advertisements have on preschoolers’ snacking habits, said Jennifer Emond, lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.

Until now, most studies have examined that effect among school-age or older children. Yet “highly palatable, unhealthy foods are heavily advertised to kids as young as 2 – primarily on TV,” Emond said.

“Overall, our research suggests that exposure to food ads can prime eating behaviors in young children that tells children to respond to external signals instead of listening to their own internal signals of fullness and hunger,” she said. “That learned response may set children up for developing poor eating habits that contribute to obesity.”

Snacking habits hacked

The study involved 60 children, ages 2 to 5 years old, who were shown a 14-minute segment of “Elmo’s World” from the show “Sesame Street.” Half of the children watched the segment embedded with a mix of food advertisements, while others watched the segment embedded with a mix of department store ads.