The Influence of Televised Food Commercials on Children's Food Choices: Evidence from Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Activations

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Abstract

Objective

To investigate how food commercials influence children's food choices.

Study design

Twenty-three children ages 8-14 years provided taste and health ratings for 60 food items. Subsequently, these children were scanned with the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging while making food choices (ie, “eat” or “not eat”) after watching food and nonfood television commercials.

Results

Our results show that watching food commercials changes the way children consider the importance of taste when making food choices. Children did not use health values for their food choices, indicating children's decisions were largely driven by hedonic, immediate rewards (ie, “tastiness”); however, children placed significantly more importance on taste after watching food commercials compared with nonfood commercials. This change was accompanied by faster decision times during food commercial trials. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a reward valuation brain region, showed increased activity during food choices after watching food commercials compared with after watching nonfood commercials.

Conclusion

Overall, our results suggest watching food commercials before making food choices may bias children's decisions based solely on taste, and that food marketing may systematically alter the psychological and neurobiologic mechanisms of children's food decisions.

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