Look Again! Misleading Fast Food Ads Cause Kids to Identify Apple Slices as French Fries

When I was younger, elementary school age, I saw my mom cutting up what I believed to be peeled apples in the kitchen. I took a piece and ate it, only to be unpleasantly surprised at the raw potato in my mouth. I quickly learned that while potatoes and apples look the same when peeled and chopped, they certainly don’t taste the same.

child watching tv

New research from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center in New Hampshire indicates that many kids have a similar problem distinguishing apples from potatoes. Only this time, the kids were asked to tell the difference between apple slices and french fries in fast food advertising on networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

Since 2024, fast food restaurants have been in agreement to include healthy foods in their advertising targeted at children. It was hoped kids could be encouraged to eat healthier foods with their meals. Of course, if kids don’t recognize the healthy food, the plan doesn’t work.

One girl during the study had difficulty identifying apple slices that were peeled and in a container that closely resembled the one that usually holds fries.

“And I see some…are those apple slices?” she asked. The researcher with her replied she was unable to help her, and the girl had to make her best guess on what she saw. The girl then decided, “I think they’re french fries.”

That girl was just one of 90 percent of the children studied who could not determine the apple slices were apples and not french fries. Additionally, when shown images of milk from McDonald’s and Burger King ads, half of the children did not recognize it as milk.

Researchers have concluded the children’s inability to identify milk and apple slices in advertising was because the advertisements were “deceptive by industry standards.”

Dr. James Sargent, lead study author, said, “Burger King‘s depiction of apple slices as ‘Fresh Apple Fries’ was misleading to children in the target age range. The advertisement would be deceptive by industry standards, yet their self-regulation bodies took no action to address the misleading depiction.

Though taking issue with how healthy food is depicted in advertising for kids, the research team did note that of the four healthy foods shown to children, McDonald’s apple slices were recognized as an apple product by the majority of the children.

The researchers also question the point of including healthy foods in advertising if the message is misleading and doesn’t do its part to guide kids to healthier choices.

If fast food restaurants want to make the commitment to advertising healthy food choices to children, they need to do it honestly and clearly. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not sure I could have correctly identified the apples either.

Video from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center

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