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Twinkies, batarangs and marketing to kids

Fast food advertisements: out of sight, out of mind.

columns Updated: Dec 01, 2012 21:49 IST

No, no one can quite see Chris Nolan’s raspy Batman peddling Twinkies to children, but superheroes did just that in DC and Marvel comics in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. You had Batman and Robin rescuing the “professor and his beautiful daughter” — the ugly ones get rescued by Shrek — after luring away The Mummy with Twinkies, The Penguin getting arrested because he stopped for a Twinkies snack (“Oh, well, I didn’t get a fortune in gems… but I did get the light, tender crust, the real fruit filling….”), and Spiderman swatting The Fly “like a mosquito” with his Twinkies-packed utility belt.

Like thousands of other DC-Marvel addicts, I begged everyone travelling overseas to get me the all-awesome Twinkies. They forgot and, over time, so did I. But the comic-book ads flashed back when I finally bit into the “irresistible sponge cake with creamy filling”. I hated every creamy crumb. It was not arsenal worthy of spectacular utility belts packed with decapitating batarangs, collapsible grappling guns and exploding projectiles. It wasn’t even worthy of my refrigerator.

That, it seems, is the accepted view. Hostess, the makers of Twinkies in the US, filed for bankruptcy protection this year, saying customers have migrated to healthier foods. So the chances of future generations finding a artificial preservative-packed undecayed Twinkie on WALL-E’s truck 700 years after the Earth turns uninhabitable for organic life forms is unlikely. But sadly, equally unlikely is generations of children escaping their heroes peddling sugary and fattening junk food through seductive ads.

For aggressive food marketing to children will continue as long as it is allowed because children are the easiest to persuade to loyally stick to their brand. In The US alone, food-manufacturers spend upwards of US $10 billion marketing their food and beverages to children. With 98% of the food products advertised to children on television being high in fat, sugar, or sodium, marketing to children has increased childhood obesity threefold in the past 30 years. A US government-funded study has shown that banning fast-food ads on television alone can lower children who are overweight by 18% and obesity by 14%.

The cause-effect of food ads is cyclic, with obese children succumbing to fattening-food advertisements more easily than healthy children, reported The Journal of Pediatrics this morning. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses blood flow as a measure of brain activity, scientists showed that exposure to familiar food logos caused greater activation in more reward regions of the brain in obese children as compared to healthy children. Healthy weight children showed greater brain activation in regions of the brain associated with self-control, leading scientists to suggest self-control training is essential to help people lose weight.

New York City’s ban on the sale of sugary soft drinks larger than 16 ounces (one pint, 473.2 ml) at restaurants in September this year may seem extreme to many, but the fact is that many, mostly children, need to be protected from being hammered with unhealthy images of foods they cannot resist. Packaged food is low in nutrition and high in starch, sugar, sodium, fat, cholesterol and artificial flavours and preservatives. Eating more of it raises weight, blood pressure and smaller LDL “bad” cholesterol, while lowering heart-protecting HDL “good” cholesterol and insulin sensitivity, which causes diabetes.

The perception that “baby” fat in children disappears with age is a myth, with a British Medical Journal study showing that excess weight during teenage years pre-disposes adults to continued weight problems, with the germ of most diseases — heart disease, type-2 diabetes, orthopaedic problems joint and lower limbs pain, and depression — being laid in your teens.

Tuning out or turning the page on food advertising is the easiest way to avoid fattening calories, for if you don’t see it, you are unlikely to want it.