My teenage daughter rolled her eyes last week — but for once, it wasn’t at me. She took issue with a commercial from a popular fast food joint that bore the tagline “Happy Tastes Good.” Growing up with a dietitian mom, she learned early that food ads are often filled with words and images that make young people associate ultra-processed products with warmth, love, happiness, coolness and peer acceptance. This commercial was a prime example.

Food advertisers spend almost $14 billion per year to guide our food choices, so this influence can’t be ignored. Each year, 70 percent of young people engage with at least one fast food brand via the brand’s social media channels and view more than 40,000 commercials. The foods being marketed — think soda, burgers and chips — are formulated with the perfect amount of salt, fat and sugar to elicit some serious cravings. As a result of this targeted marketing, teens consume more of these foods, and that’s linked with a shoddy diet and poor health outcomes as they grow.

Most times, teens have no idea that any marketing is going on. This was highlighted perfectly in a recent video about how food marketing affects youth, made by the U.K.-based nonprofit organization Bite Back 2030. The group hopes to inspire young people to help change the food system.

The video shows each teen being given a sealed envelope before ordering off a menu. What the teens don’t know is that leading up to the restaurant visit, the film producers used the same techniques as the food industry to bombard them with messages about “triple dipped chicken” on billboards, radio, social media and public transportation. The teens said they didn’t notice most of the ads, but when they opened the sealed envelopes, they learned that the producers had predicted that they would order the triple dipped chicken. The teens were astonished to realize how food marketing manipulates their eating decisions.

“We know what really motivates teens is truth and honesty, and they weren’t aware of the deliberate tactics used to get them to eat food that isn’t good for them,” explains James Toop, chief executive of Bite Back 2030. “What we wanted to do with the film was expose those tactics to young people.”

Toop’s team was partly inspired to make the video based on a study published in Nature Human Behavior in April 2019, which showed that when teens are made aware of misleading marketing practices, it can motivate them to make healthier choices.

That study addressed researchers’ concern that current school-based nutrition education for teens is less focused on media literacy, and more on making better food choices for future long-term health. “The problem is that teens don’t really care that much about the distant future in any meaningful sense,” says Christopher J. Bryan, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “If they need to decide between an immediate reward and one in the future, they tend to choose the immediate reward.”

So Bryan’s team tried something different. In a school setting, they split teens into two groups. The first group heard the usual government-approved healthy-eating messages, while the second group learned that food marketing is manipulative, is run by adults who may be perpetuating lies and is aimed at vulnerable populations, such as young children, teens and low-income communities.

The new approach perfectly hit on the values that teens hold dear, namely autonomy, social justice and fairness. The researchers hoped that this tactic would help teens in the media literacy group reject junk food to reassert their autonomy from the control of food marketers and to take a stand against the injustice of misleading ads. Teens in that test group were shown fast food ads and were able to rework the wording graffiti-style to make the ads more truthful.

And the media literacy approach did have more of an effect on the teens’ diets than the traditional approach. This was especially true for the male students, who purchased less junk food in the lunchroom for the remaining three months of the school year compared with the group who heard the traditional messages.

“We also found significant and lasting changes in both boys’ and girls’ implicit, gut-level emotional reactions to junk food and healthy food,” says Bryan.

Pretty genius, right? By opening teens’ eyes to marketing tricks, the researchers reframed healthy eating as a rebellious act, tapping into teens’ natural desires to assert their autonomy. What really angered the teens was learning that unscrupulous food marketers sell unhealthy food to low-income communities and to children, but often don’t eat it themselves.

“It’s hypocrisy, which connects to both social justice and rebellion, and makes kids feel fired up and motivated to fight back,” says Bryan. “Teens have a heightened concern for fairness and justice. It’s the time in life when kids become vegetarians for moral reasons or become anti-globalization activists. They have a sense of themselves as agents in the world who can make a difference, and they want to make the world a better place.”

It’s too soon to say whether Bryan’s research may flow into the U.S. high school curriculum or what effect campaigns such as the one by Bite Back 2030 may have, but I’m certainly hopeful. Until media literacy becomes a mandatory part of every teen’s classroom, however, it’s up to parents. Start by reading this guide from Common Sense Media, then view food ads with your kids and discuss them. It seems like exposing the truth about food marketing to teenagers may be the most powerful tool we have to create a new generation of healthy eaters.

Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”

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