In 2016 alone, the food industry spent almost $14 billion on overall advertising to influence Americans’ food choices. The U.S. food system is the second-largest advertiser in the American economy, and views adolescents as a major market force, aggressively targeting them to build brand awareness, preference and loyalty.
Food advertising to teens almost exclusively promotes highly processed, unhealthy food loaded with fat and sugar.
According to the CDC, 20.6% of those aged 12 to 19 are obese. Obesity in adolescence can lead to serious long-term physical and mental health consequences, and increase the risk of developing chronic diseases, including heart disease and diabetes, the CDC says.
“There is no way we can address the obesity crisis unless the marketing is drastically lowered,” Dr. Jennifer Harris, senior research adviser at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, told ABC News.
Teens are “especially vulnerable to these advertisements,” Harris added. “Peer influence is the most important factor in much of their decision making, and the companies have tapped into that need, and social media, for peer affirmation.”
“These fast food ads get under teens’ skin and activate the brain in this unconscious way that is tough to protect themselves from,” said Ashley Gearhardt, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.
Her research has shown that fast food ads activate highly sensitive and still-developing reward pathways in teens’ brains. Additionally, foods high in fat, sugar, refined carbohydrates, salt and other flavor enhancers have been shown to have addictive qualities that can increase cravings.
“These ultra-processed foods are engineered to be intensively rewarding,” Gearhardt said. “From a biological perspective, adolescents are very vulnerable to things that have an addictive property because the reward systems develop rapidly and peak in adolescence, but the parts of your brain that are the brakes and impose control and restraint develop more slowly.”