Sugar & spice: Do junk food images on children’s clothing influence lifelong eating habits?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Images of pink and purple donuts, frosted cupcakes and ice cream cones delivered with cute sayings about being “sweet” dance before the eyes of other children on the fronts of T-shirts and sweaters. It’s fairly common to see our favorite junk foods splashed across everything from pillows to sleeping bags to pajamas. Sweet dreams indeed. But now, a University of Michigan study is raising the alarm about a preponderance of unhealthy food messages on children’s clothing. Researchers are warning against in-your-face junk-food advertising on chest-height billboards that is especially targeted towards girls.

“I started thinking about how food graphics on clothing may impact kids’ identification with food starting as early as when they’re babies,” says lead study author Megan Pesch, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor in the university’s Department of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics, in a statement. “Could food on apparel be another influence on food preference and eating behaviors?”

Researchers sorted through 3,870 clothing items for sale by four major children’s retailers. The study found that one in 11 apparel items featured some sort of food. Just a third of these images were of fruit or another healthy food.

Sweet or salty? Study authors also found blatant gender bias in the food images. While girls’ clothing featured desserts, pastries and other sweets, boy’s clothing was seasoned with fast foods, fries and pizza. About a third of the food graphics related food to fun — for example, a pizza slice riding a skateboard.

“That may underlie some of these cultural expectations of girls’ characteristics versus boys’ behavior, specifically that girls are expected to be ‘sweet,'” Pesch notes.

Study authors say that food choices and eating habits formed in childhood tend to extend into adulthood. As such, they believe future studies should be undertaken to find out how these food messages disguised as fashion statements influence eating behaviors long-term.

“There is nothing wrong with a donut or cookie once in a while, Pesch says. “They are ‘sometimes foods’ and completely fine in moderation.”

But, she adds, we are already quite aware of the importance of establishing good eating habits early on and avoiding obesity. “Food graphics on children’s products may provide insights into how society shapes children’s emotional relationships with food and reinforces obesity-promoting messaging,” Pesch concludes.

Study results are published in the journal Eating Behaviors.