Box office films would fail UK junk food advertising rules, study says

Box office hits including Disney films, Harry Potter series and James Bond are awash with junk food that would fail UK advertising rules, scientists say

  • US researchers looked at the US 250 top-grossing films between 1994 and 2018
  • 73 per cent are unhealthy enough to fail UK food advertising standards in the UK 
  • An acceptance of fast food is down to its prevalence in popular culture like films

Disney, Marvel and James Bond films are among the box office successes featuring junk food that would fail UK advertising rules, scientists say. 

US researchers looked at the 250 top-grossing films in the US between 1994 and 2018, which also included Harry Potter, Avatar, Toy Story and adult films such as Pulp Fiction and The Matrix. 

They found that 73 per cent of the films would be unhealthy enough to fail legal healthy advertising standards in the UK for food and 90 per cent would fail for beverages.  

This was based on the Nutrient Profile Index developed by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) – a tool to help differentiate foods and improve the balance of TV advertising to children.  

Nearly every movie featured at least one food scene and one beverage scene, racking up a total of 9,198 foods and 5,748 drinks.

Across 9,198 foods, snacks and sweets, including baked goods, sweets and processed salty snacks, were the most common items to feature on screen, starring in 2,173 or 23.6 per cent of food scenes. 

In the drinks category, 2,303 out of 5,748 (40.1 per cent) were alcoholic – the most commonly depicted beverage. 

Researchers say the acceptance of fast food is down to its prevalence in western culture, including films. Pictured, the famous burger scene from Pulp Fiction (1994) directed by Quentin Tarantino

Even among the G-rated movies – the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) lowest classification for general audiences with no age restrictions – 20 per cent of beverages were alcoholic. 

‘This study suggests that popular US movies depict an unhealthy diet that fails national dietary recommendations, akin to US individuals’ actual diets,’ said study author Dr Bradley Turnwald at Stanford University in California. 

‘Depicting unhealthy consumption in media is a sociocultural problem that extends beyond advertisements and branded product placements.’

For their new study, researchers paused, rewatched and slowed down movie scenes such as car chases, fight scenes and flashbacks as much as possible to identify the food and drink that featured and well as whether they were branded. 

Only 12 per cent of foods and beverages were visibly branded, they found, which suggests getting fast food into film scenes is not just about big companies paying for product placement.  

Instead, it reflects a broader social acceptance of unhealthy foods, such as burgers, chips, sugary snacks and alcohol.

A scene from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, where Ron and Harry eat fictional sweets 

Popular US movies depict an unhealthy diet, with the majority showing unhealthy foods and drinks, according to the US research 

Whether it’s James Bond clutching a vodka martini or on-screen heroes eating burgers at a diner in a Quentin Tarantino film, it’s part of Hollywood’s culture, the experts suggest.

‘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 Dr Turnwald. 

‘Audiences look up to famous celebrities, superheroes and role models, and we’re watching what they’re eating and drinking on screen.’

However, given their influence on society and popular culture, films are a high-impact opportunity to promote healthy eating.

This is only ‘if move producers expand the range of foods and beverages depicted … as representative of US culture,’ the authors say in the paper, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.   

The researchers found that healthier foods did make appearances, albeit less frequently – fruit appeared in at 23 per cent of the films, vegetables in 14 per cent, protein such as fish at around 10 per cent and grains at 9 per cent. 

To determine just how unhealthy the on-screen foods actually are, researchers looked to the UK, which is restricting the types of food and beverages advertised to youth. 

Advertising unhealthy foods and beverages is restricted in the UK if 25 per cent or more of an audience includes youth under age 16, as per FSA guidelines. 

Researchers compared the nutritional quality of foods and beverages depicted in the 250 top-grossing movies with dietary recommendations from FSA. 

They used the same nutrition rating system – the Nutrient Profile Model – as the FSA. 

Pictured, Daniel Craig as James Bond gulping down beer in the 2012 film Skyfall. Alcoholic drinks were frequnely observed in the researchers’ sample

Overall, movies failed recommended levels of saturated fat per 2t,000 calories by 25 per cent, sodium per 2,000 calories by almost 4 per cent and fibre per 2,000 calories by 45 per cent.

One calorie is the amount of heat needed to cause the same increase in one kilogram of water. 

Films also depicted higher total sugar content and more than 300 per cent higher alcohol content per 2,000 calories than US individuals consume.

Neither food or beverage nutrition scores improved over time or among movies targeting youngsters.  

Movies show food and drink with nutritional quality that is unknown, unregulated and under appreciated as a source of dietary influence.  

‘Movies, as cultural products, may reflect norms regarding which foods and beverages are valued and representative of a culture,’ the team say in their paper

‘Beyond mere reflection, however, movies may  actively influence viewers’ health behaviours.

If movies influence viewers’ health behaviours, then it is important to know the nutritional quality of the foods and beverages that they depict.’ 


The Lion King 1994

The Flintstones 1994

Dumb and Dumber 1994

Clear and Present Danger 1994

The Santa Clause 1994

True Lies 1994

Pulp Fiction 1994

Forrest Gump 1994

The Mask 1994

Speed 1994

Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls 1995

GoldenEye 1995

Pocahontas 1995

Die Hard: With a Vengeance 1995

Apollo 13 1995

Jumanji 1995

Casper 1995

Toy Story 1995

Batman Forever 1995

Seven 1995

Mission: Impossible 1996

The Rock 1996

Independence Day 1996

A Time to Kill 1996

Jerry Maguire 1996

Twister 1996

The Birdcage 1996

The Nutty Professor 1996

101 Dalmatians 1996

Ransom 1996

Star Wars (Special Edition) 1997

Tomorrow Never Dies 1997

My Best Friend’s Wedding 1997

Titanic 1997

Good Will Hunting 1997

Liar Liar 1997

As Good As It Gets 1997

Air Force One 1997

Men in Black 1997

The Lost World: Jurassic Park 1997

Armageddon 1998

The Waterboy 1998

Saving Private Ryan 1998

Patch Adams 1998

Rush Hour 1998

There’s Something About Mary 1998

Deep Impact 1998

Godzilla 1998

Doctor Dolittle 1998

A Bug’s Life 1998

Tarzan 1999

The Mummy 1999

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 1999

The Sixth Sense 1999

The Blair Witch Project 1999

Toy Story 2 1999

Runaway Bride 1999

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me 1999

The Matrix 1999

Big Daddy 1999

Mission: Impossible II 2000

Gladiator 2000

How the Grinch Stole Christmas 2000

What Women Want 2000

The Perfect Storm 2000

Meet the Parents 2000

X-Men 2000

Scary Movie 2000

Cast Away 2000

What Lies Beneath 2000

Monsters Inc. 2001

Ocean’s Eleven 2001

Pearl Harbor 2001

Planet of the Apes (2001) 2001

Rush Hour 2 2001

Shrek 2001

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 2001

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 2001

Jurassic Park III 2001

The Mummy Returns 2001

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones 2002

Signs 2002

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 2002

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2002

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 2002

Spider-Man 2002

Men in Black II 2002

Chicago 2002

Austin Powers in Goldmember 2002

Ice Age 2002

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl 2003

X2: X-Men United 2003

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 2003

Cheaper by the Dozen 2003

The Matrix Reloaded 2003

Bruce Almighty 2003

Elf 2003

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines 2003

The Matrix Revolutions 2003

Finding Nemo 2003

The Passion of the Christ 2004

The Bourne Supremacy 2004

National Treasure 2004

Shrek 2 2004

Spider-Man 2 2004

Meet the Fockers 2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 2004

The Incredibles 2004

The Polar Express 2004

The Day After Tomorrow 2004

King Kong 2005

Batman Begins 2005

Mr and Mrs Smith 2005

War of the Worlds 2005

Madagascar 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 2005

Wedding Crashers 2005

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 2005

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith 2005

Cars 2006

Night at the Museum 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand 2006

Ice Age: The Meltdown 2006

The Da Vinci Code 2006

Casino Royale 2006

Superman Returns 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest 2006

Happy Feet 2006

300 2007

Transformers 2007

I Am Legend 2007

Shrek the Third 2007

Spider-Man 3 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum 2007

Alvin and the Chipmunks 2007

National Treasure: Book of Secrets 2007

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa 2008

The Dark Knight 2008

Kung Fu Panda 2008

Quantum of Solace 2008

Iron Man 2008

Twilight 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 2008

WALL-E 2008

Dr Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! 2008

Hancock 2008

The Blind Side 2009

Avatar 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen 2009

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel 2009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon 2009

Sherlock Holmes 2009

Star Trek 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince 2009

The Hangover 2009

Up 2009

How to Train Your Dragon 2010

Inception 2010

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse 2010

Shrek Forever After 2010

Alice in Wonderland 2010

Tangled 2010

Despicable Me 2010

Harry Potter and the Dealthly Hallows Part I 2010

Iron Man 2 2010

Toy Story 3 2010

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon 2011

Fast Five 2011

Thor 2011

The Hangover Part II 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides 2011

Cars 2 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 2011

Brave 2012

Skyfall 2012

The Dark Knight Rises 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 2012

The Hunger Games 2012

Marvel’s the Avengers 2012

Ted 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man 2012

Madagascar 3: Europes Most Wanted 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II 2012

Iron Man 3 2013

Man of Steel 2013

Frozen 2013

Monsters University 2013

Oz The Great and Powerful 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 2013

Despicable Me 2 2013

Fast & Furious 6 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 2013

Gravity 2013

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I 2014

Big Hero 6 2014

American Sniper 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction 2014

Maleficent 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2014

The LEGO Movie 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy 2014

Spectre 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015

Furious 7 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015

The Martian 2015

Minions 2015

Inside Out 2015

Cinderella (2015) 2015

Jurassic World 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II 2015

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 2016

Deadpool 2016

Captain America: Civil War 2016

The Secret Life of Pets 2016

Zootopia 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 2016

The Jungle Book (2016) 2016

Sing 2016

Suicide Squad 2016

Finding Dory 2016

Thor: Ragnarok 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 2017

Justice League 2017

Wonder Woman 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017) 2017

It 2017

Despicable Me 3 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi 2017

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle 2017

Mission: Impossible – Fallout 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom 2018

Aquaman 2018

Black Panther 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody 2018

Dr Seuss’ The Grinch (2018) 2018

Deadpool 2 2018

Incredibles 2 2018

Avengers: Infinity War 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp 2018


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