Food Marketing: Obesity Problem or Solution?

Food marketing is alternately held up as the problem behind the obesity epidemic or the source of a solution to it. In a study just published in Appetite, Bettina Cornwell and colleagues found among preschool children that their knowledge of junk food brands and logos did a very good job of predicting a child’s BMI.

The better these children knew brands for fast food, soda, candy, and sugary cereals, the more likely they were to have a high BMI. The authors concluded that familiarity with these key marketing tools is a good surrogate indicator for exposure to and consumption of junk food.

Fruits & Veggies More MattersOn the solution side of the ledger, the World Health Organization and countless other entities — governments, businesses, and NGOs — have been promoting increased fruit and vegetable consumption under the Five-A-Day banner. In the U.S., the banner has morphed to get straight to the point: “More.”

David Allison was senior author on a recent study that showed advice to eat more fruits and veggies doesn’t lead to weight loss. He prompted us to ask ourselves what is the evidence base to support these campaigns? If you look, you’ll find three problems:

  1. Supply. In an analysis of the U.S. food supply, Susan Krebs-Smith and colleagues concluded that “Supplies of dark-green/orange vegetables and legumes and whole grains were entirely insufficient relative to recommendations, with virtually no change over time.” Decades of dietary guidance, they note, have had little effect.
  2. Effectiveness. Compelling evidence is lacking that these campaigns are producing meaningful changes in fruit and vegetable consumption.
  3. Benefits. Beyond the now questionable benefits on weight, other claims for the health benefits of fruits and veggies might have been exaggerated. For example, an expert panel report from the American Institute of Cancer Research recently stated that “the overall evidence, that vegetables or fruits protect against cancers, [is] somewhat less impressive. In no case now is the evidence of protection judged to be convincing.”

So the track record of food marketing with respect to health promotion is spotty at best. Folks in the food industry appear to understand the nuances of it more fully than those in public health do.

Perhaps a better alignment of goals would help.

Click here for the study of BMI and junk food brand awareness. Click here and here for analyses of evidence for five-a-day campaigns. Click here for more on the benefits of fruits and vegetables for cancer prevention.

Eat More Beef, photograph © Larry Myhre / flickr

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