Image: French Fries
Carlos Osorio  /  AP file
Which would you choose? Kids who saw an ad for fries picked the fries, even when their parents tried to get them to pick a healthier alternative such as apple slices.
By Elisa Zied, R.D.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/6/2011 9:27:42 AM ET 2011-10-06T13:27:42

Food ads have more clout when it comes to children's food selection than even an involved parent, a new study in The Journal of Pediatrics suggests. The findings came as a surprise to researchers who were trying to determine the impact of commercials on kids' diets.

Researchers from Texas A&M International University studied 75 children between the ages of 3 and 8. The children were shown a film that included two cartoons with three commercials in between each cartoon. The kids were randomly divided into two groups: one watched a film that included a commercial for French fries; the other watched one that included a commercial for apple slices with dipping sauce.

Afterwards, the children selected a coupon for either advertised food while they received "encouraging" input -- "You should choose the one that is healthiest" -- or neutral input -- "You should choose whichever one you want more" -- from their parents.

Of the children who watched the commercial for French fries, 71 percent chose the coupon for French fries when parents were neutral; 55 percent did when parents were encouraging. Of the children who watched the commercial for the relatively healthier item, only 46 percent chose the coupon for French fries when parents remained neutral; 33 percent did when parents encouraged the more healthful selection.

The researchers were surprised to find that despite parental input, children were more likely to choose the coupon for the item they saw advertised.

“We were very skeptical about the power of food advertising on kids’ food choices, particularly when parents were available to potentially offset those influences," says lead author Christopher Ferguson, Ph.D. "Although parents were able to blunt the effects of food advertisements, it wasn’t to the extent we had speculated."

The researchers do acknowledge their findings may not apply to all, in part because the sample size was small and largely Hispanic.

The power of fries shouldn't be discounted, either. Even the crunchiest apple slice may not be as appetizing as a salty fried slice of potato.

But parents shouldn't despair -- they may have a greater influence on children's food choices in the "real world," especially when they make frequent, consistent recommendations to their children.

“My biggest concern is that parents will think this study suggests they’re powerless in the face of advertisements," Ferguson says. "That's not the case at all."

It may not be easy, but one way to lessen the power of food commercials, especially the high-fat, high-calorie sugary ads that dominate children's programming is to limit daily screen time to 1 or 2 hours to reduce kids’ exposure to food advertisements and any negative nutrition consequences that may stem from them, suggests Sarah Krieger, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Ferguson adds “Although more research is needed, I suspect that charting a good course for your children means making more healthful choices yourself. That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect, but even small efforts to make more healthy food choices and to exercise more can pay dividends for the family down the road.”

Elisa Zied, R.D. is the founder/president of Zied Health Communications, LLC, author of "Nutrition at Your Fingertips" and co-author of "Feed Your Family Right.”For more information, visit elisazied.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @Elisa Zied

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