Food industry and adolescents: an overview

Food industry aim:

Get adolescents to eat and drink products binge-like as an automated behavior on cue,

  • The brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine [“chunking”]. The basal ganglia store the habit.
  • Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort [effort-saving instinct]. Duhigg (2012): “An efficient brain … allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat”.

either by internal cues [emotions or experiences are associated with a product so that the product is consumed when these emotions or experiences occur]

  • Eyal (2014): “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation.”

or by external cues [product producer content that triggers consumption of the product].

  • Living Loud (2017): “Great advertising is designed to quietly influence people, to go consciously unnoticed, that’s why 62% of people think advertising doesn’t affect their purchase decisions.”
  • Living Loud (2017): “A study by Yale university showed that children, aged 7-11, watching cartoons with food ads ate 45 per cent more snack food than children watching the same show with non-food related ads.”
  • An et al. (2014): “In this study, exposure to advergames promoting HFSS products among children 7–12 years old was linked with increased consumption of HFSS products in general, not just the advertised brands or products. This study also found that children who were exposed to advergames promoting fruit subsequently consumed more fruit, but not at the expense of HFSS foods. In other words, children who played advergames promoting either healthy or unhealthy foods consumed more snacks than children who played games promoting non-food related products or did not play advergames at all. An and Kang (2014) have argued that the impact of advergames for unhealthy food products is potentially twofold: on the one hand these games promote the advertised brand or product, but on the other hand they also promote a type of food and eating habits that are nutritionally at odds with a recommended child diet.”


Food industry means:

(1) Marketing

Provide external cues

and forge internal cues

by means of immersing adolescents online in a branded environment, own and on social network sites, for longer periods of time by sending multimedia messages, personalized interactivity, and providing one-on-one communication.

  • British Heart Foundation (2011): “The internet enables advertisers to capture children’s attention for longer periods of time compared with traditional forms of advertising. By developing integrated marketing strategies across a variety of media, including websites for children that are playful and highly interactive, companies are able to immerse children in their brands. Social media channels enable companies to build relationships on a one-on-one basis by communicating directly with children. Social sites also extend marketing messages into children’s social media feeds when they opt to ‘follow’ or interact with a brand – effectively expanding their reach to the child’s social network.”
  • British Heart Foundation (2011): “we developed a checklist of commonly used marketing techniques listed below:
    • Children represented on the website
    • Cartoon characters including licensed or brand-owned (characters created by marketers to appeal to children)
    • People, personalities or celebrities whose name or image may be familiar or of appeal to children
    • Cartoons, animations or videos — competitions, games or apps with appeal to children.
    • Free gifts or prizes e.g. downloads or merchandise, toys or other items with appeal to children
    • Links to social networking websites.”
  • Cheyne et al. (2013): “Compared to traditional marketing, online marketing is perceived to be offering children an ‘immersive environment’  where children are exposed to the advertised brands or products through a variety of multimedia formats, some of which allow the child to interact with the brand. Based on a content analysis of 17 websites targeted at children, researchers argued that there was a positive relationship between immersive environments and popularity and engagement. The researchers found that websites with more content and higher levels of multimedia content, interactivity and personalisation had higher visitor numbers and that children engaged for longer with the content on these websites.”
  • Rideout (2014): “The interactive nature of the internet is believed to make children’s engagement with marketing material more meaningful, entertaining and personal. Studies with children have found that interactive advertising content can establish positive brand associations.”
  • Rideout (2014): The overall critique of marketing to children on websites targeted at or popular with children is that the marketing material is perceived to be integrated into the overall content, thereby blurring the boundaries between entertainment and advertising.
  • Rideout (2014): Marketing formats such as banner ads, integrated videos and games, downloadable branded content, competitions, giveaways and links to social media sites are frequently used by companies to maximize exposure and engagement with the brand on websites children visit.
  • Bucy et al. (2011): “the emotional attachment to animated characters that children develop may be increased by the opportunity to interact with the character through competitions and games. … the non-linear nature of content consumption online compared to, for example, that via the television may lead children to have a longer and deeper sense of engagement with the brand and the advertising content.”
  • Kervin et al. (2012): “A review of Australian magazine websites targeted at children found that, in addition to banner ads, marketing messages were also included in the editorial content, such as in sponsored recipes and games, where it was suggested that children would find it more difficult to recognise advertising.”
  • Staiano et al. (2012): “Websites containing entertaining and immersive content appealing to children help promote positive attitudes towards the brand rather than a specific product, potentially making the child more able to recall and request the brand over other competing brands.”
  • Staiano et al. (2012): Advergames combine two social issues associated with obesity: media use as a part of overall sedentary behavior and exposure to marketing for unhealthy food and beverage products.
  • Staiano et al. (2012): Due to the immersive nature of game playing, it is argued that this format allows repeated and longitudinal exposure to the brand and marketing message and previous research has suggested that increased levels of brand identifiers are linked with increased brand recognition and recall among children.
  • Harris et al. (2013): “Engagement tactics included posting images or videos, asking questions, hosting competitions or posting links to either company or third-party websites.”
  • An et al. (2014): “Similar to television advertising and online marketing in general, it has been found that the products and brands advertised through advergames are likely to be low in nutritional value. A recent content analysis of 131 gaming websites that are popular with children found that 22 of these contained advergames and that of these 12 contained advergames that promoted food products. The majority of these games promoted products that were high in calories and low in nutrition. 11 of the 12 websites were listed among the 20 most popular gaming websites for children.”
  • Waiguny et al. (2013): “One of the few studies attempting to measure long-term effects did this by revisiting children who had been exposed to advergames for Nesquik two weeks later and asking them whether they had requested the advertised products from their parents. It was found that 30% of the 149 participating children reported having asked their parents for the advertised cereal. The same study also found evidence to suggest that the narrative in the advergame influenced the children’s brand beliefs. Children who had played the advergame where the Nesquik bunny was seen jumping higher after eating cereal were found to be more likely to think the product ‘made you fit’ compared to children who had not played the game.”
  • Rifon et at. (2014): “a recent American study found that after exposure to a cereal advergame, the younger children in the sample (5-7) were more likely to have positive expectations of the advertised brand’s taste and to believe that eating the advertised cereal would make them healthy.”


These marketing techniques are supported by low youngster digital literacy.

  • Holmberg et al. (2014: “teenagers had a low awareness of the amount of advertising they had actually seen, and that they frequently understated that amount.”


(2) Marketing

Provide variable rewards

  • This tool is described by Eyal (2014) as the third phase of the process of habit formation: “Experiences with finite variability become increasingly predictable with use and lose their appeal over time. … Variable awards must satisfy users’ needs while leaving them wanting to reengage with the product.”
  • Dow Schüll (2012) sees the tool of variable rewards as one of the key elements in gambling addiction. Following Turkle (1984) she writes: “The degree of fascination that a given machine holds for its users … is directly related to the degree of unpredictability and aliveness that it conveys.” As a result of their “irreducibility”, machines are perceived to take on a life on their own, becoming agents who can take players to a “zone” of insulation from a capricious, discontinuous, and insecure human society.
  • Dow Schüll (2012): “While designers’ orientation is calculative, rational and focused on a distant statistical future in which profit is guaranteed, gamblers’ orientation is experimental, affective, and focused on the unpredictable outcomes of their next spin; as their involvement in play deepens, they are likely to become less invested in winning than in continuing to play.”

for reacting to external cues by means of social media interaction and gamification elements
that evoke the production of dopamine in the brain’s reward center

  • Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook stated: “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? … And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments. … It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. … The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”
    According to Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president Facebook of user growth, social networks have created “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” that lead to the destruction of “how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”
    Jane McGonigal (2011) tells us that games provide us every two minutes with opportunities to experience “fiero”, an emotional high on dopamine: “fiero is one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience. It involves three different structure of the reward circuitry of the brain, including the mesocorticolimbic center, which is most typically associated with reward and addiction. Fiero is a rush unlike any other rush and the more challenging the obstacle we overcome, the more intense the fiero.”

so that the effectiveness of the external trigger is reinforced.


(3) Biology

Provide rewards following-up on the automated behavior that is triggered by the cues

by means of adding ingredients to products that evoke the production of dopamine in the brain’s reward center [nucleus accumbens]

  • Avena et al. (2011): “the taste of sugar can increase extracellular dopamine in the nucleus accumbens without fail in animals on a dietary regimen that causes bingeing and sugar dependency. … dopamine is released repeatedly in response to taste when bingeing on sweet food”.
  • Avena et al. (2008) “The reviewed evidence supports the theory that, in some circumstances, intermittent access to sugar can lead to behavior and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of a substance of abuse. According to the evidence in rats, intermittent access to sugar and chow is capable of producing a “dependency”.”
  • Page: “consuming fructose relative to glucose activates brain reward regions and may promote feeding behavior. When volunteers consumed the fructose drink (compared to when they consumed the glucose drink), it led to greater activity in brain reward areas, including the orbitofrontal cortex”.
  • Klenowski et al. (2016): “sugars such as sucrose potentially have addictive properties following long-term, binge-like consumption”.
  • Ahmed (2013): “Available evidence in humans shows that sugar and sweetness can induce reward and craving that are comparable in magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs. … sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute to addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive. At the neurobiological level, the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward appear to be more robust than those of cocaine …”

so that the relation between cue and automated behavior is reinforced.

  • Duhigg (2012): the reward helps the brain figure out whether a particular loop is worth remembering.
  • Page, homepage: “Dr. Page and team found that obese young adults reported more hunger and a greater desire to eat when they viewed pictures of high-calorie foods such as chocolate cake … These images triggered the appetite and reward centers in the brain, and these neural and behavioral responses to high-calorie food stimuli may promote eating.”


(4) Biology

Disrupt the adolescent’s digestive equilibrium by adding ingredients that induce the automated behavior to occur more frequently.

  • Living Loud (2017): “the main meals we now eat are much higher in refined carbohydrates, such as pasta, bread and rice and much lower in high-density wholegrains and good natural fats such as animal fats and dairy. Our gut rapidly digest refined carbs into glucose, which courses through our body sending our pancreases, liver and other organs into overdrive. Your body is so concerned by the damage that high glucose (think sticky blood) could cause that it releases extra insulin to burn the glucose and rapidly turns the excess glucose into fat. The big problem is a couple of hours later your fully revved engine has burned through all that fuel, your blood glucose drops and your brain switches to emergency lifesaving mode, it powers down all non-critical energy-burning functions, releasing hormones to make you feel lazy and hungry. So you reach for the quick energy-fix carb snacks, burn through those until lunchtime, then tea, dinner, and a bedtime snack all the while knackering your metabolic system, piling fat on your organs and setting yourself up nicely for diabetes. This is all no accident of nature. It is the creation of extraordinary food scientists working in laboratories. They have refined the perfect blend of salt, sugar and fat to feel great in the mouth, stimulate the pleasure sensors in the brain and still leave us feeling hungry.”


The food industry activities to promote the adolescent habit of (binge-like) eating and drinking involving high sugar consumption might lead to metabolic effects (obesity, diabetes) as well as neurological and psychiatric consequences.

  • Malik et al. (2010): “In addition to weight gain, higher consumption of SSBs [sugar-sweetened beverages] is associated with development of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. These data provide empirical evidence that intake of SSBs should be limited to reduce obesity-related risk of chronic metabolic diseases.”
  • Meng et al. (2016): High fructose intake by rats changed at first two genes in their brains and then, through these changes, more than 700 genes in the hypothalamus (the brain’s major metabolic control center) and more than 200 genes in the hippocampus (which helps regulate learning and memory). This led to memory impairment, much higher blood glucose, triglycerides, and insulin levels. “Those results are significant because in humans, elevated glucose, triglycerides and insulin are linked to obesity, diabetes and many other diseases.”
  • Klenowski et al. (2016): “In line with the increased risk of developing metabolic effects it is also possible that neurological and psychiatric consequences affecting mood and motivation may also result from these behaviors.”
  • WHO (2015): “Free sugars contribute to the overall energy density of diets, and may promote a positive energy balance. Sustaining energy balance is critical to maintaining healthy body weight and ensuring optimal nutrient intake. There is increasing concern that intake of free sugars – particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages – increases overall energy intake and may reduce the intake of foods containing more nutritionally adequate calories, leading to an unhealthy diet, weight gain and increased risk of NCDs [Noncommunicable diseases]. Another concern is the association between intake of free sugars and dental caries.”

Some claim more certainty:

  • Taubes (2016): “The sugars and refined grains that make up such a high proportion of the foods we consume in modern Westernised diets trigger the dysregulation of a homeostatic system that has evolved to depend on insulin to regulate both fat accumulation and blood sugar. Hence, the same dietary factors – sugars and refined grains – trigger both obesity and diabetes. By focusing on the problems of eating too much and exercising too little, public health authorities have simply failed to target the correct causes.”

But others propose caution:

  • Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (2015): “The majority of the evidence on sugars, sugars-sweetened foods and beverages is derived from cohort studies. There are very few data on individual sugars such as glucose, fructose or sucrose. Due to the paucity of studies, there is a lack of evidence to draw conclusions on the impact of sugars intake on the majority of cardio-metabolic outcomes in adults, including body weight.”


Long-term adolescent obesity can have lifelong effects.

  • Reinehr (2017): “Those who have obesity during adolescence usually have obesity into adulthood, which causes many medical and psychological issues that can result in premature death. Furthermore, obesity in adolescents is associated with a range of social problems, including difficulties securing an apprenticeship or a job or finding a partner. Adolescents with obesity are also at increased risk of having children with obesity later in life. All these consequences lead to high costs for the health-care system.”


There are indications that the food industry suppresses negative research outcomes.

  • Kearns et al. (2017) “The sugar industry did not disclose evidence of harm from animal studies that would have (1) strengthened the case that the CHD risk of sucrose is greater than starch and (2) caused sucrose to be scrutinized as a potential carcinogen.” The Verge on this article: “About 50 years ago, the sugar industry stopped funding research that began to show something they wanted to hide: that eating lots of sugar is linked to heart disease.”
  • Kearns et al. (2016): ““our findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in CHD. Policymaking committees should consider giving less weight to food industry–funded studies and include mechanistic and animal studies as well as studies appraising the effect of added sugars on multiple CHD biomarkers and disease development.” The New York Times writes: ““They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F. and an author of the JAMA Internal Medicine paper.”