Food ads fire up the teenage brain

U. MICHIGAN (US) — Watching TV commercials of people munching on French fries or cereal resonates more with teens than advertisements about cell phones or the latest car.

Regardless of their body weight, teens’ brain activity is higher during food commercials than nonfood commercials, according to new research published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

“It appears that food advertising is better at getting into the mind and memory of kids,” says Ashley Gearhardt, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “This makes sense because our brains are hard-wired to get excited in response to delicious foods.”


Children see thousands of commercials each year designed to increase their desire for foods high in sugar, fat and salt. For the study, researchers analyzed how the advertising onslaught affects the brain.

Thirty teenagers (ages 14-17) ranging from normal weight to obese watched a television show with commercial breaks. Their brain activity was measured with a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner.

The video showed 20 food commercials and 20 nonfood commercials featuring major brands such as McDonald’s, Cheerios, AT&T, and Allstate Insurance. Study participants were asked to list five commercials they saw and to rate how much they liked the product or company featured in the ads.

Regions of the brain linked to attention, reward, and taste were active for all participants, especially when food commercials aired. Overall, they recalled and liked food commercials better than nonfood commercials.

Teens whose weight was considered normal had greater reward-related brain activity when viewing the food commercials compared to obese adolescents, suggesting that all teenagers, even those who are not currently overweight, are affected by food advertising and that exposure could lead to future weight gain in normal weight youth.

Obese participants may attempt to control their response to food commercials, which might alter the way their brain responds, the study suggests. But if these teens are bombarded with frequent food cues, their self-control might falter—especially if they feel stressed, hungry, or depressed.

Brain regions that are more responsive in lean adolescents during food commercials have been linked with future weight gain. The new findings may inform the current debates about the impact of food advertising on minors.

Researchers from Yale University and the Oregon Research Institute contributed to the study, which was funded by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and National Institutes of Health.

Source: University of Michigan