What you eat at the movies may be less of an issue than what you watch others eat.
A new study reveals that nearly three-quarters of the most influential US movies over the past quarter of a century would be unhealthy enough to fail legal nutrition advertising standards in the UK for food, and 90% would fall short for beverages.
The on-screen diet also would not meet nutrition recommendations in the US for sugar, saturated fat, total fat, fibre, water and, in particular, alcohol. The US does not have advertising standards.
An obvious potential explanation, the researchers say, is product placement as a means of covert advertising, yet only 11.5% of the foods and beverages were visibly branded.
“This finding suggests that the problem of media depictions of unhealthy diets as normative and valued extends far beyond brands and advertisements,” they write in a paper in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
For the study, Bradley Turnwald and psychology colleagues from Stanford University, US, binge watched the 10 highest grossing films of each year from 1994 to 2018, which between them sold 10 billion tickets worldwide (grossing US$164 billion). Significantly, 219 of the 250 films targeted or were accessible to young people, with ratings of G, PG, or PG-13.
In all, there were 14,946 appearances of foods and beverages, including empty containers. All were coded precisely (eg, “chocolate ice cream on a sugar cone” rather than just “ice cream”) regardless of positioning on the screen. Nutritional value was assessed according to the US and UK systems, neither of which is influenced by portion size.
Of the 9198 foods, 23.6% were snacks and sweets, while 40% of the 5748 beverages had alcoholic content. Alcohol made up 18% of beverages in G-rated movies.
Among foods, most movies depicted medium or high levels of sugar (93.5%), saturated fat (84.9%), total fat (93.1%) and, to a lesser extent, sodium (50.2%).
Neither food nor beverage nutrition scores improved over time across the 25 years or among movies targeting youths.
The researchers acknowledge that movies, as cultural products, may reflect norms regarding which foods and beverages are valued and representative of a culture, but suggest that they also “may actively influence viewers’ health behaviours”.
“To the extent that food and beverage depiction in movies is also associated with viewers’ food and beverage consumption, as reported by short-term laboratory studies for food depictions and longitudinal cohort studies for alcohol depictions, our nutritional analyses suggest that US movies promote unhealthy consumption to global audiences.”
Their answer? In movie speak, movies should use their power for good rather than evil.
“Given their influence… movies represent a high-impact opportunity to promote healthy consumption if movie producers expand the range of foods and beverages depicted as normative, valued, and representative of US culture,” the paper concludes.
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
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