Teen rebels reject junk food

A new study shows that teenage boys picked healthier food options when these choices were framed as rebellious.

What comes to mind when you think about Sprite? My thoughts turn to Canadian rapper Drake, specifically his bombastic 2010 commercial for the soda. In the ad, he takes one sip of the lemon-lime sugar juice and is immediately hit with a jolt of inspiration to record his verse on the hit song “Forever.” I only recall seeing the commercial once—as a high schooler—but ever since, my associations of the soda, the rapper, and notions of thirst-quenching have been intertwined.

Such is the power of food marketing on the teenage brain. Which leads to a dilemma that has long confounded healthy-eating advocates: How can young people be convinced to eat fruits and vegetables when big food companies like Coca-Cola spend millions trying to align junk food and drinks with celebrities, pop culture, and coolness?

A possible new tool is quite simple: Make them read investigative food reporting. That’s according to a new study published in the science journal Nature Human Behavior on Monday. Teenagers like to rebel against authority, the thinking goes, so why not illuminate the power structures that shape the food system? If teenagers knew about the corporate calculations behind their favorite snacks, would they still eat them?

Such is the power of food marketing on the teenage brain.
That’s exactly what Christopher Bryan, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, sought to find out in a recent experiment. Working with a group of more than 360 eighth-graders at a suburban middle school in Texas, the team presented one half of the students with a traditional health curriculum that stressed the importance of exercise and eating foods from all food groups.

Meanwhile, the second half, deemed the “exposé group,” received a more radical food education—one that used recent reporting to illustrate how conglomerates develop and market unhealthy food. Primarily citing work by journalist Michael Moss, students were asked to consider the ways big food companies target poor people in marketing, use flavor science to create addictive qualities, and incorporate deceptive language into ads for unhealthy food. Later, students in this group were asked to “vandalize” junk food advertisements with the concepts they learned. Over an image of Drake promoting Sprite, one student scrawled: “He’s doing it for money.” Touché.

A new study showed that teenage boys picked healthier food options when these choices were framed as rebellious. Credit: Christopher Bryan, April 2019Christopher Bryan

This first-of-its-kind study could potentially affect how teenagers perceive junk food in the future

Here’s the bigger deal, though: Following the experiments, boys in the exposé group bought 30 percent less junk food than they used to in the remaining three months of school. The middle school provided Bryan’s team with a complete log of cafeteria purchases per student for the entire school year. Purchases classified as healthy—such as water, fruit, and milk—surged in popularity while options like sugary drinks, cookies, and chips dropped.

Girls in the exposé group actually showed a less significant change in junk food purchases than the control group. Bryan’s team theorized that this could be due to gender-based factors related to body image.

“For girls, an emphasis on calories, for example, might trigger socio-cultural pressures to be thin, which are much greater for them than they are for boys,” the study notes.

Bryan drew inspiration for this experiment from a nationwide anti-tobacco campaign called Truth, which was established in 1998 and drew attention to big tobacco’s practices.

If teenagers knew about the corporate calculations behind their favorite snacks, would they still eat them?
“That was the first time not smoking was framed as the rebellious thing to do,” Bryan tells me in a phone interview. The parallel is apt: Plenty of researchers have noted that big soda companies are using tactics from the tobacco industry to get ahead of sugary drinks taxes taking hold in cities across the country.

These findings could change the way that educators teach healthy eating to young people—which could, in turn, beget significant changes in well-being throughout adulthood.

“The earlier you can intervene, the more opportunity there is for small improvements to sort of aggregate in their benefit over a person’s life,” Bryan says. “Another reason adolescence is important is that it’s a time in life when kids start to get a lot more independence to make choices—food choices, for example, in the cafeteria.”

Of course, there’s still a lot more research to be done. Next, Bryan wants to see what would happen if students were encouraged to exchange ideas they had in class with each other. He envisions elements of an organic social movement, such as collaborating to make videos about food marketing tactics. Bryan also wants to examine how socioeconomic and cultural factors influence results.

Nonetheless, this first-of-its-kind study could very well spell a sea change in how teenagers perceive junk food in the future. Nothing was the same.

Sorry, Drake.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.