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A new Stanford University study shows that 40% of beverages seen in movies are alcoholic drinks and characters on the silver screen eat so poorly that they failed federal recommendations for saturated fat, fiber and sodium.

Researchers launched the study because they wanted to find out why consumers don’t eat healthier when they know they should. So they looked at an influential force in American popular culture — movies — to see how films depict foods and beverages on-screen to the public.

Researchers examined the 250 top-grossing American movies between 1994 and 2018 and found the on-screen foods and beverages largely failed U.S. government nutrition recommendations.

“Movies portray the types of foods and beverages that are normative, valued and reflective of our culture, so the foods and beverages that the film industry decides to depict matter,” said study lead author Bradley Turnwald, a postdoctoral researcher in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. “Audiences look up to famous celebrities, superheroes and role models, and we’re watching what they’re eating and drinking on screen.”

Processed food prevails

The study found that on-screen diets failed federal recommendations for saturated fat, fiber and sodium, and depicted frequent instances of high sugar content and alcoholic beverages. Snacks and sweets, including baked goods, candies and processed salty snacks, were the types of foods that showed up on screen most frequently.

About 40% of beverages in these movies were alcoholic. Even among the G-rated movies, 20% of beverages were alcoholic. Roughly 88% of the films analyzed were accessible to youth with ratings of G, PG or PG-13.

To determine just how unhealthy the on-screen foods actually are, the researchers looked to other countries like the United Kingdom that are beginning to restrict the types of food and beverages advertised to youth.

Advertising unhealthy foods and beverages is restricted in the U.K. if 25% or more of an audience includes youth under age 16.

“If our favorite actors and superheroes aren’t eating salads, why should we?”

Alia Crum, Stanford University researcher

The Stanford researchers applied the U.K. rating system to the set of American movies and found that over 70% of movies received food ratings that would be illegal to advertise to youth under the U.K. standard. For beverages, more than 90% of movies received ratings that would fail U.K. advertising standards.

“What we commonly eat and drink and seem to enjoy shapes what movie production studios decide to depict. At the same time movies shape our preferences, our behaviors and our imaginations,” said Hazel Rose Markus, psychology professor and a senior author on the study.

While this study didn’t measure how viewers actually respond to seeing these foods on-screen, the researchers note that prior research has found that when people are exposed to violence, racial bias, binge-drinking and smoking in movies, it can actually increase their engagement in these behaviors.

“The foods depicted in popular movies send a clear message — not only about what is common to eat but also about what foods are appealing or cool to eat,” said Alia Crum, assistant professor of psychology and senior author on the study. “If our favorite actors and superheroes aren’t eating salads, why should we?”