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Photo: Brandon Morgan/Unsplash
By Alex Piazza
Hamburgers, French fries, tacos and fried chicken.
Access to this popular fare is not of concern for most Americans, as Statista reports the United States is home to more than 230,000 fast-food restaurants.
But beyond its taste and convenience, research shows that consumption of fast food is linked to serious health problems like obesity and heart disease.
University of Michigan researchers are studying the industry, exploring how fast-food commercials influence our brain and whether companies target certain communities to increase profits.
Their work will help influence the future of fast food.
A teenager sits down to watch her favorite TV show when a commercial appears.
Photo: Natalie Condon and Katie Barkel
A bacon cheeseburger covers the screen, with golden French fries and a chocolate milkshake in the background.
She instantly craves a salty snack, so she heads to the kitchen to satisfy her appetite.
This scenario is nothing new, as the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity reported that adolescents in 2016 viewed about 12 food-related TV advertisements per day.
So what prompts this sort of reaction, and which crowds are most vulnerable to fast-food marketing?
Cue Ashley Gearhardt. The U-M psychology professor is working with nearly 200 teenagers to study how fast-food commercials affect their brain. The results of her study could influence the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, which affects about 20 percent of Americans ages 12 to 19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There’s been an increase in the amount of fast-food advertising to teenagers, and this is a serious problem because they often have an overdeveloped reward system,” said Gearhardt, director of the university’s Food and Addiction Science & Treatment (FAST) Lab. “This leaves them vulnerable to problematic behaviors like overeating.”
Gearhardt recruited teenagers, ranging from normal weight to obese, to U-M where they provided saliva samples for genetic testing, then watched TV while getting their brains scanned. Teenagers viewed commercials marketing everything from fast food to face wash.
Based on preliminary data, as well as findings from a previous study led by Gearhardt, regions of the brain linked to attention, reward and taste were active among all participants, especially when food commercials aired.
Through surveys and follow-up visits where researchers measured participants’ height, weight and body mass index, they found that teenagers who showed the greatest reward-related brain activity in response to fast-food commercials were more likely to gain weight over time.
Their findings could help influence public policy, as groups nationwide continue to push for tougher restrictions on which items fast-food companies can market based on nutritional value.
“Reducing the number of cues that encourage people to eat fast food is really important, and although TV remains the dominant medium, the fast-food industry has a growing presence on social media,” Gearhardt said. “Our current food environment is one in which the default is to overeat and to struggle with obesity, and it’s really going to take some systemic environmental changes to make an impact.”
Cost or Convenience?
Over the past week, how many times did you eat fast food from restaurants like McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Taco Bell?
That question was posed to thousands of people to test the popular belief that poor people eat more fast food than their wealthy counterparts.
“Americans have increased their consumption of fast food considerably over the past few decades, and there is concern that this trend is more pronounced among the poor,” said UM-Dearborn economics Professor Patricia Smith, whose research focuses on the relationships between health and socioeconomic status.
Smith and Ohio State University researcher Jay Zagorsky pored through more than 8,000 responses from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to find connections between wealth and fast-food consumption.
Their research, which was recently published in Economics and Human Biology, contradicts the popular belief and reveals income and wealth are not significant drivers of fast-food consumption.
“The truth of the matter is that everyone eats fast food, regardless of their socioeconomic status,” Smith said. “In fact, our data shows the middle class eats slightly more fast food than the poor and the wealthy.”
As part of their research analysis, Smith and Zagorsky separated the survey respondents (polled in 2008, 2010 and 2012) into categories based on wealth.
- With regard to the poorest 10 percent of respondents, 80 percent of them ate fast food.
- With regard to respondents in the middle of the socioeconomic distribution, 85 percent of them ate fast food.
- With regard to the richest 10 percent of respondents, 75 percent of them ate fast food.
“Convenience is the real driving factor here, and our data reflects that,” she said. “Working people were 15 to 18 percent more likely to eat fast food than people who were unemployed. Consistently positive associations between hours worked and fast-food consumption indicate the power of convenience in consumers’ meal choices.”
Their research also has public policy implications, as zoning restrictions proposed by cities nationwide aim to control the growth of fast-food restaurants in low-income neighborhoods. In 2008, Los Angeles adopted a moratorium on construction of fast-food restaurants, though Smith notes the restrictions have done little to reduce obesity rates.
“Rather than fight the influence of convenience, maybe we ought to focus our efforts on making healthy food more convenient,” said Smith, whose research also highlights the importance of nutrition labels. “Our research shows that people who read nutrition labels were more likely to make healthier choices, so let’s develop ways to make these labels more visible and easier to understand.”