Food and Behaviour Research

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Fast Food Advertising - Study begins to unlock the development of child taste preferences

by Nathan Gray of Food Navigator

McDonald's french fries by pexels-polina-tankilevitch-4109241.jpg

Children's knowledge and consumption of fast food has a significant impact on their palate and preference for foods that are high in added sugars, salt and fats, according to new research.

The findings, published online in the journal Appetite suggest that children with detailed mental representations of fast food and soda brands – as developed by advertising and experience – have higher scores on an ‘added flavour’ sugar/fat/salt (SFS) liking palate.

If taste preference is playing a role in the obesity epidemic, how can we identify a starting point for change? … It seems that we must begin by addressing the development of palate and the preference for particular foods and thus, we must start with young children,” said the authors, co-author Dr. T. Bettina Cornwell from the University of Oregon.

This research on child palate contributes to the potential for change by firstly identifying that early food-related behaviours are important to the discussion and by offering a new focus for food manufacturers, policy, and future research,” they said.

Food for children is an area of growing interest, particularly in light of burgeoning obesity rates. Indeed, FoodNavigator’s focus on Kids’ Food last year showed the importance of this market segment. Bill Patterson, a senior analyst at the market research organization Mintel, told FoodNavigator-USA that children have become more independent in their food choices, but what is available to them is changing.

Marketing tastes

Picking up on these concerns, Cornwell and colleagues said that food marketers are at the “epicenter of criticism for the unfolding obesity epidemic as societies consider banning advertising to children and taxing “junk” foods.”

They noted that whilst marketing's role in the development of obesity is not well understood, there is clear evidence that children are regularly targeted with calorie-dense, nutrient-poor food.

“How is it that food and drink manufacturers and restaurant chains have come to offer so many products high in sugar, fat, and salt? … One possible answer is that it has occurred in the pursuit of taste preference. Competitive market forces continually push companies to offer products that are preferred over others,” said the researchers.

They noted this consumer demand for sugar, fat, and salt products, which is then met by manufacturer supply of foods that contribute to unhealthy eating habits appears to have become “a self-perpetuating cycle.”

Much of the previous research has looked to understand how marketing influences brand preference and child behaviour, however the authors argued that understanding palate development may offer new insights for discussion.

Study details

Cornwell and co-workers developed two studies to consider whether a sugar/fat/salt (SFS) palate is linked to children's knowledge of food brands, experience with products, and advertising.

In the first study, they developed a survey to measure taste preferences and find whether a child's SFS palate as reported by parents relates significantly to children's self-reported food choices. Whilst the second study examined how children’s knowledge of certain branded food and drinks related to palate.

The researchers reported that children aged between three and five showed a higher preference for the taste of flavour-added foods compared with natural foods.

The relationship between parent SFS palate and child SFS palate was also found to be significantly mediated by the child’s fast-food consumption.

The studies also revealed a significant indirect effect of fast-food consumption on child SFS palate, with children’s knowledge of brands as the mediator. The authors reported that brand knowledge is a significant predictor of SFS palate, and SFS palate is a significant predictor of a child's choice of foods that provide “flavour-hits”.


Cornwell said that the research goes further than previous studies by identifying some of the likely antecedents of brand associations from TV viewing and consumption experiences.

“The main argument by the food industry to justify marketing to children is that companies only influence brand preferences, not preferences for categories of foods … But findings from the present research show that food marketing may not just influence category consumption but also fundamentally change children's taste palates to increase their liking of highly processed and less nutritious foods,” said the researchers.

They said that as a result food and drink manufacturers should “critically examine their role in creating brand associations to food experiences.”

Cornwell said that the findings of the study presented “a public policy message”.

“If we want to pursue intervention, we probably need to start earlier,” she said.

Source: Appetite
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2011.01.010
“Alternative thinking about starting points of obesity. Development of child taste preferences”
Authors: T. B. Cornwell, A.R. McAlister