Lecture refuses to sugarcoat children’s negative eating habits

By Julia Kline

The effect of television food advertising on the nutritional choices of children and young teens was addressed in a lecture on Wednesday at Bevier Hall, 905 S. Goodwin Drive.

Kristen Harrison, assistant professor of speech communications held the presentation entitled “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”

The lecture was based on two recent studies in which grade school students were the main subjects. The first, a panel study conducted by researchers N. Signorielli and J. Staples, attempted to correlate the nutritional savvy of children with the amount of television they viewed daily.

Students of both genders and varying ethnicities were presented with pairs of food items and were asked to identify the most nutritious choice. The study tested 141 children in first through third grades.

“The results of the study showed children who viewed the most television and were exposed to the most food advertisements had the most trouble identifying the healthier foods,” Harrison said.

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However, the study showed this decreased nutritional knowledge applied mainly to diet foods. This may suggest that the media presents confusing messages concerning diet or reduced calorie foods. Foods and beverages such as diet soda and low-fat potato chips are presented as “healthy” because they have reduced amounts of undesirable ingredients such as sugar and fat. This completely disregards the fact that they may contain negligible amounts of healthful nutrients.

The second study conducted by Harrison and her colleagues analyzed the kind of messages presented to children in food advertising. After evaluating 426 food advertisements from 40 hours of cable and prime time television, they concluded that the majority of food advertised to children was not nutritionally sound.

“Foods advertised to children, such as sweetened cereals and sugared sodas are nutritionally poor,” said Harrison. “Many of the products are very high in fat and have less than the recommended daily value of vitamins.”

Harrison was concerned with these unhealthy messages being distributed to children, especially because they have such a profound effect on nutritional choices.

“TV ads influence kids’ food purchase requests,” said Harrison. “Experiments show that when kids are exposed to ads, they are more likely to pick those foods later on.”

In addition, Harrison and her fellow researchers analyzed the child actors used in commercials to appeal to the younger demographic. They found overweight male characters appeared more frequently in food advertisements than underweight male characters. With female characters, however, it was the exact opposite. Young female characters that would be considered underweight appeared much more often than overweight females.

Although the results of the studies presented by Harrison showed television advertising has a profound effect on children’s nutritional choices, she also asserted that parents should take a more active role in educating their children on healthy-eating habits.

Karlena Alonso, senior in LAS, agreed that parents could play a role in improving their children’s nutrition.

“More healthy choices could be delivered by parents,” Alonso said. “They could serve more vegetables at dinner and cook meals instead of going out to eat.”

Leslie Goldberg, freshman in FAA, suggested schools could get involved in helping grade school children make positive nutritional choices.

“Many schools don’t have adequate health programs,” Goldberg said. “It makes me wonder what would happen if more schools encouraged students to eat healthy foods.”