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More TV means more junk food

“Mom, not that cereal, I want this cereal!” your child insists as she holds up the box of overly sugar-coated flakes. If you're wondering why your child is constantly drawn to these types of unhealthy options, you may want to start watching how much time they spend watching TV. Candy, cookies, sugar, and more sugar is what makes up the bulk of children’s advertisements, and a new study suggests that more television viewing increases children’s preference for the type of food advertised.

There is plenty of evidence showing that food advertising on television affects food preference, choice, and consumption, so it probably comes as no surprise that children, after viewing programs with embedded food advertisements, are more likely to choose the foods featured in the ads than if they had not seen those commercials. What may come as a surprise, however, is the sheer amount of commercials promoting fat, sugar, and carbohydrate-rich foods. A shocking 80% of all children’s advertisements are for snacks or fast food. That’s around 11 junk food ads per half-hour!

It’s not only what they see, but also how often they see it

In a recent study published in Pediatrics, just under 300 children aged 6 to 13 were tested on their food and brand preferences after viewing food commercials. The children were exposed to 30-second-long toy or food commercials followed by the same 20-minute episode of “Scooby-Doo,” and completed food preference and commercial recognition questionnaires after each viewing session.

The study found that children chose more fat and carbohydrate-rich foods after viewing the food commercials compared to after they viewed toy commercials. Moreover, the food commercials consisted of both branded and nonbranded food choices, suggesting that it isn’t just brands they associate with, but the actual types of food. This is problematic since these foods are generally nutrient-poor and high in empty calories. These findings stand in contradiction to the common defence used by food advertising companies that only a child’s brand preference is affected.

The study also found that children who regularly watch more hours of television were more affected by the food commercials. The high television viewers picked not only more foods but also significantly more branded food items than the children who watch less television on a regular basis. These findings suggest that more exposure plays a role in determining a child’s responsiveness to the actual message of the ads – which in the case of food advertisements is “you want this type of food and you want this brand of food.”

Food vs. toys

When comparing food commercials with toy commercials – the second most advertised product to children – the children correctly recognized more food commercials than ones for toys. This demonstrates that children do enjoy and pay attention to food commercials, probably because the ads are presented in fun, colourful ways and often feature children they may find similar to themselves looking happy and enjoying what they are eating.

Why is this problematic?

The majority of food advertisements are for unhealthy options and these are the most frequently advertised products to children. According to a statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), when children watch more television, foods higher in calories and fat are consumed and less fruits and vegetables are eaten. Also, overeating has been associated with watching television while eating.

In fact, so many unhealthy eating practices have been associated with children’s food advertisements, that the AAP recently issued a statement recommending that physicians push for bans and restrictions on these types of advertisements. Quebec already has a law prohibiting any advertising directed to children under 13 years old, so maybe it is time that the rest of Canada starts thinking of similar regulations. Also, since we know that food advertisements have such a big effect on children, why not push for more ads promoting healthy foods?

For more information, visit our pages on Television and Media and Nutrition.

Ali Elliott
Editorial Intern, AboutKidsHealth


Boyland E, Harrold J, Kirkham T, et al. "Food Commercials Increase Preference for Energy-Dense Foods, Particularily in Children Who Watch More Television". Pediatrics. 2011

Council on Communications and Media. "Policy Statement - Children, Adolescents, Obesity, and the Media". Pediatrics. 2011