Monday, July 19, 2010

I'm not making it easier for you with this picture

In my last post I wrote about how children think junk food is tastier when there’s a cartoon on the package. As adults, we may be wiser to such blatant marketing schemes, but we still love our junk food, Shrek or no Shrek. Take pop for example: as of 2006, the production value for carbonated soft drinks in Canada was $2 billion. We also like our donuts: one of the biggest sources of added sugars in our diet is bakery goods. While it’s sometimes nearly impossible to resist the enticing aroma of fresh cinnamon buns baking at the coffee shop, think twice before you splurge: a new study suggests that added sugars in the form of fructose is positively linked to high blood pressure.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects over 5 million Canadians, and is increasingly affecting teenagers. It’s a direct risk factor for many nasty conditions, like heart failure and stroke. Interestingly, the increase in the prevalence of hypertension mirrors the increase in our consumption of fructose. And while technically, fructose is a type of sugar found in fruits, it is not thought that the increase in fructose consumption is due to eating more apples. The culprits are sweetened drinks, processed foods and those deadly cinnamon buns.

To address this question directly, American researchers analyzed the data from the very, very large (>4500 participants) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Not surprisingly, the more fructose you consume, the higher your risk of hypertension. This fructose intake/high blood pressure relationship holds even when you control for a number of other factors, including demographics, physical activity, other diseases, calorie intake, alcohol intake, salt intake, and others.

This study highlights what we call an “independent association”, which is not to be confused with a cause-and-effect relationship. There is not enough data to say that eating a lot of fructose leads to hypertension, only that those two things seem to occur together. However, the study has some strong features, namely that it is looking at a very large sample of people, and that it controls for many possibly confounding factors (an important one being salt intake, as it can lead to hypertension).

On the plus side, it’s very easy to limit your fructose consumption by decreasing the amount of pop you drink and the amount of processed foods you eat. On the downside, cinnamon buns are oh-so-very-tasty.

Reference: Increased fructose associates with elevated blood pressure. (2010) Jalal DI et al. J Am Soc Nephrol [Epub ahead of print].

Monday, July 5, 2010

Is Scooby-Doo to blame?

In this age of pre-prepared processed meals and endless hours on Facebook, it’s no wonder kids are getting fatter. In the US, obesity rates have doubled for preschoolers (2-5 years old) and more than tripled for children 6-11 years old. To explain this alarming obesity trend, many blame the accessibility and affordability of fast food. As a graduate student I often relied on cheap take-out to sustain myself. Luckily I quickly discovered that in Vancouver, sushi costs less than a McDonald’s meal, offering an interesting alternative. If my rent didn’t force me to live below the poverty line (hey, this PhD’s got to be worth something, right?), I would have thought this was heaven. In any case, I’m digressing. Cheap fast food is one part of the equation, kids drooling, lifeless, in front of the computer and the television is probably another part. Interestingly, a recent study suggests that another contributor to the obesity crisis is no other than… Scooby-Doo. And Dora. And Shrek.

The researchers were interested in finding out if putting the image of a popular character on the packaging of a product (this marketing ploy is called “character licensing”) is an effective way to sell food to kids. To test this, the researchers studied three foods: graham crackers, gummy bears and baby carrots. The participants in the study, children aged 4 to 6 years old, were presented with two packages of the same food item (for example, graham crackers). The only difference was that one of the packages had a sticker of a cartoon character (Scooby-Doo, Dora or Shrek) on it. The kids were then asked to say if one of the two foods tasted better, and if so, which one. They were also asked which food they would prefer to have for a snack.

So, does it work? Are children that oblivious to this obvious and dubious marketing trick (Scientific Chick challenge: Write a sentence with more than 3 words ending in -ious)? Absolutely. Overall, children perceived the food items with the cartoon on them to taste better than the ones in the plain packaging. This finding was statistically significant for the “junk” food (the crackers and the gummy bears). Not surprisingly, the children also indicated they would prefer the snacks with the characters on the packaging. As it turns out, character licensing is especially effective in children because they lack the ability to understand that the advertisement is meant to be persuasive.

You would think that all you would have to do to solve the obesity crisis is to slap Elmo’s face on broccoli and apples, but the fact that the character licensing experiment didn’t work as well with the carrots suggests this wouldn’t necessarily do the trick. The researchers only studied 40 children, a relatively small sample size to draw out any solid conclusions, but it’s still an interesting finding. I find it a little worrying that cartoon characters can lead to a more positive perception of the taste of junk food. I find it very worrying that food and beverage companies spend more than $1.6 billion per year on advertising for kids. I guess Ramen advertises for grad students and nobody gets worked up about that.

Reference: Influence of licensed characters on children’s taste and snack preferences. (2010) Roberto et al. Pediatrics, 126(1):88-93.

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