During tonight's Super Bowl, the very expensive television ads will get almost as much attention as the game. Those same ads for food could, on other days, be causing children and adults to overeat and fueling the obesity epidemic, experts say.
There is a barrage of food advertising during children's programs and during prime-time television. A random check by The Augusta Chronicle of all four broadcast networks found an average of 21.5 food ads and three beverage ads between 8 and 11 p.m.
The Federal Trade Commission found in 2007 that children see an average of 15 food ads every day. All of that food flashing before them could be "priming" them to snack, according to a study from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
In the study, published last year in Health Psychology , Yale researchers showed two groups of children a cartoon, one with food ads and one without, and provided snacks. The children watching the food ads ate 45 percent more than the other group.
"It is a big difference," said lead author Jennifer L. Harris, the director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center. "Usually when we do these kinds of studies, we don't see effects that large. That was quite surprising."
It wasn't just children -- adults who watched a program with food ads also ate more than those who watched one without them. This was particularly true for men and "restrained eaters," people who might be dieting.
Food cues appear to have a bigger effect on the dieters, and they tend to eat more when they do because "they'll say, 'What the heck: I already blew my diet; I might as well go all the way,' " Harris said.
Snacking and eating for reasons other than hunger -- what some researchers call "hedonic hunger" -- appears to be on the rise.
"We do know that people are snacking more than they used to," Harris said. Rebutting food industry claims that the ads influence only brand selection, the primed eating is more nonspecific, she said.
"What we found is that it makes people eat whatever is available, not just the foods that are advertised," Harris said.
It could be the ads and television viewing fuel the kind of thoughtless eating that can lead to overeating, said Jessica Baye, a registered dietitian with Medical College of Georgia Hospital.
"It's very, very mindless eating," she said. "It's almost a hand-to-mouth thing. And if you're not paying attention, you can complete an entire bag of chips or a whole thing of popcorn by yourself because you're not being mindful about the eating."
Children in particular could be at risk from food ads, which one study showed make up 70 percent of the ads on Saturday morning programming, Baye said.
"Their programs are saturated with it," she said. "And they're not food ads for broccoli and carrots and yogurt. It is pretty intense, the advertising and the subliminal messages that trigger you to consume."
Other research has already clearly established a link between commercial television and obesity in children, Harris said.
"For children, there is very clear evidence that children who watch more television have higher (body mass indexes)," Harris said, which doesn't hold true for watching public television or videos.
Whether the ads are fueling the obesity epidemic in adults is a harder case to make, she said.
"It certainly doesn't help," Harris said. "You're constantly reminding people about food when they are watching television because of all of the food advertisements. Since most of the foods that are advertised are not healthy, you're reminding them about foods that they really shouldn't be eating very much. That fact I'm sure has an impact on obesity."
The effect lingered even after the television was turned off, she said.
"It's not just that it makes you eat more when you're eating while you're watching television but also immediately after," Harris said. "So that's something to be aware of if you're going to have a snack after you have finished watching television."
That consciousness is one way to combat it, and today with the Super Bowl is as good a day as any to start, said Dr. Charles Stuart Platkin, the creator of TheDietDetective.Com.
"It is just a time of heightened awareness," Platkin said.
"So it is really interesting to be able to bring to people's attention that when they do see a lot of food commercials or they see food posters, that they are being influenced to eat more than they should," Platkin said. "And that once you become aware of that, now you have a responsibility to recognize that and be cognizant of it when you make your food choices. You probably are being influenced, especially those who are underage. You have a responsibility for them."