The research team tested children -- ages 3 to 5 -- by showing them images of logos including McDonald's golden arches, the Trix rabbit and the Burger King crown. They were also asked to match images of food and cartoons with the appropriate brand names.
Anna McAlister, an assistant professor and study researcher at MSU, said the children who could identify the unhealthy brands had higher Body Mass Indexes (BMIs), but added that she found it encouraging that not all the children could identify the brands easily.
The researchers, who performed the study twice, saw inconsistencies in their findings on whether or not exercise mitigates the effects of familiarity with unhealthy food. McAlister said the results prove that it's not just a sedentary lifestyle that is harming children.
"The inconsistency across studies tells us that physical activity should not be seen as a cure-all in fixing childhood obesity. Of course we want kids to be active, but the results from these studies suggest that physical activity is not the only answer. The consistent relationship between brand knowledge and BMI suggests that limiting advertising exposure might be a step in the right direction too."
The study also found that food branding was not solely to blame for the obesity epidemic, the relationship children develop with food in their formative years was also a critical factor.
"What we're trying to show here is just how young kids are when they develop their theory of food," said McAlister. "As early as 3 years of age, kids are developing a sense of what food means to them."
According to the CDC, more than one-third of children and adolescents were determined to be overweight or obese in 2012. Recent reports show a promising downturn in childhood obesity, while it remains steady for adults. However, as the study points out, children who are overweight or obese tend to remain that way into adulthood.