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Yet Another Study Blames Food Companies for Parental Choices

A new study on food marketing and kids, published this week in JAMA Pediatrics, concludes, as a UPI report this week explains, that “[e]xposure to food and beverage marketing and advertising boosts consumption of these products appreciably among children and adolescents.”

Study co-author Emma Boyland of the University of Liverpool tells UPI the “research is further robust evidence that unhealthy food marketing has detrimental effects on eating and related behaviors in young people.” Boyland and her co-authors conclude the study by arguing their findings “support the implementation of policies to restrict children’s exposure to food marketing.” That’s despite the fact, as I’ve explained many times, that such food-policy interventions are as notoriously invasive as they are ineffective.

But this JAMA Pediatrics study seemingly was always going to conclude otherwise. Indeed, the study was intended to bolster and update recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO), which funded the study. Per the study, the WHO currently recommends “that member states enact policies to restrict children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing.” The new study was intended “to inform the development of updated recommendations to restrict food marketing to children.”

For their research, the authors searched through more than twenty scholarly databases to identify relevant studies published between January 2009 and March 2020. They identified dozens of relevant existing articles, which comprised the research cited in their meta-analysis.

“Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the effects of food marketing given their immature cognitive and emotional development, peer-group influence, and high exposure,” the study argues.

I’ve read through dozens of similar studies over the years, and I find their cognitive dissonance startling. Kids might be “particularly vulnerable” to food marketing, but they aren’t the ones who buy food (or toys, for that matter). That choice is left to parents or guardians—who have authority over food choices and, even more importantly, money to buy food.

It’s true that some parents choose to cede some of their authority. Prior research has shown that kids do influence parental food purchases—chiefly via nagging and pestering. A 2013 article in Time dubbed this sort of parental abdication of food decision-making authority “mealtime surrender.” A 2016 study found that “children influence the purchasing decisions of their parents, but this influence decreases when mothers and fathers are more aware of the importance of a quality-based diet.” This suggests parents are also quite aware they are the ones ultimately responsible for raising happy and healthy kids.

If a child of any age sees a food product advertised and asks their parent to buy that food product for them, the choice to do so (or not) is the parent’s alone. But maybe the kid nags and pesters. Well, countering the nagging requires an approach parents are uniquely qualified to exercise: parenting.

Parents are free to let their kid watch food ads, choose what foods to buy, and choose what foods the parent will serve them at home. But don’t blame food companies for parents’ mealtime surrender. Blame parents.

Research blaming food companies for what parents feed their kids, I noted in a 2016 column, is a “tired old trope” and “the public-health community’s answer to everything.

No amount of television watching by an infant is responsible for the fact they’re consuming French fries instead of breast milk or pureed bananas and apricots,” I added.

In that same 2016 column, I argued researchers should study both why many parents make poor food choices for their children and what fixes might improve those outcomes. Better educational interventions would certainly help address the problem. Instead, though, researchers continue to demonize food makers and ignore the fundamental role of parents in helping their kids develop healthy, lifelong eating habits.