While 2-year-old Emma Giarratano is on a play date she immediately gravitates toward the chips. She passes by the celery, carrots and an abundance of fruits to the small white containers filled with sodium and trans fats. Emma’s mother Annie Giarratano quickly stops her daughter and puts the bowls out of reach. Giarratano said she does not allow her daughter to eat junk food, but is aware that her daughter drifts toward unhealthy options whenever they are present.
“I think [healthy eating] is everything,” Giarratano said. “It is very important to start when kids are young to shape their taste buds to healthier foods.”
Ellen Wartella, professor of psychology, human development, public policy and medical social science, said eating habits are influenced as early as age 2. Wartella spoke at Webster University on Oct. 6 about the effects of food marketing. She also spoke to individual communication classes about the effects of media. She has been a part of many data researching groups, including the 2006 evidence review of impact on marketed food choices and diet.
During Wartella’s presentation, she mentioned that foods marketed to children were found to be high in sugar, fats and calories, but low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
According to Foodmatters.com, Lunchables are the worst packaged meal targeted to children. The Oscar Mayer turkey and cheddar cracker Lunchables meal has 1,440 grams of sodium, which is over half the recommended daily intake of 2,400. The meal comes with a dessert and a sweetened drink, adding more sugar to the meal. The meal surpasses the recommended 25 grams of daily sugar intake by 36 grams.
Wartella found in her 2006-2011 study that a common marketing tactic used to promote unhealthy foods is using recognizable media characters such as the Lucky Charms leprechaun. Single mother and Webster university student Lyddia Skaggs agrees that her child wants products with identifiable characters.
Skaggs is the mother of 4-year-old Jason Skaggs. She said she can not go grocery shopping without her son wanting to get a sugar-filled cereal.
“He recognizes Lucky Charms, he knows there are marshmallows in it, and he knows that because the character on the front is the same character in the commercials,” Skaggs said.
Giarratano said her daughter is not attracted to unhealthy foods because of media, but because of a cultural effect. She said her daughter gets curious when seeing other people eat food she is unfamiliar with. She worries that her daughter will start eating unhealthy foods when she becomes more active with media.
During Wartella’s presentation she said social media, including Facebook, Twitter and website ads, is also a marketing tool used to promote food. Wartella said the individual should not be blamed for being obese.
Wartella said the issue of obesity could be helped with a nationwide, ongoing health campaign. She believes the government should fund a campaign that teaches people to be health literate and more aware of their daily food intake.
“We can’t just have fits and stats, we need an ongoing campaign,” Wartella said. “To [be able to] watch the increase of awareness this country needs an ongoing health campaign.”
Skaggs thinks otherwise. She said the campaign would not increase the amount of healthy food her and her son eat. She said the issue is larger than just health literacy.
Skaggs thinks the issue lies within cost. She said being a mom, she notices that healthy food is more expensive than a trip to McDonald’s.
Wartella acknowledged the problem and said fruits and vegetables are not locally-grown, making them more expensive to import. She said that parents should focus on what they can do if money is an issue, including cooking at home and not drinking sweetened drinks.
Wartella said since conducting the study she has noticed companies reformulating their product to create healthier options. On Sept. 4, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper decided to work on the reformulation of their products to reduce sugar. Wartella said creating healthier options for these products is a step in the right direction.