MONDAY, June 21, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Popular cartoon characters are influencing the taste preferences of very young children, and not in a positive way, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that the branding of American food product packaging with characters such as Dora the Explorer drives preschoolers to choose higher-calorie, less healthful foods over more nutritious options.
"The bottom line is that when kids are presented with a choice of graham crackers, fruit snacks or carrots, and the only difference is that one package has a licensed character on it, they actually think that the food with the character tastes better," said study author Christina Roberto, a doctoral student working at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
The findings, reported online June 21 in Pediatrics, reflect on the food preferences of 4- to 6-year-old boys and girls who found foods tastier when the packaging bore the likenesses of beloved TV and movie characters.
The authors looked at 40 preschoolers -- described as "ethnically diverse" -- attending four child-care centers in New Haven. Over the course of two visits, the team presented the children with samples from three different food types: low-nutrient/low-energy graham crackers; low-nutrient/high-energy gummy fruit snacks; and high-nutrient/low-energy baby carrots.
All the foods were packaged with the same color, shape and design, with one brandless and one branded example from each food category. Branded versions bore the likenesses of eminently recognizable cartoon characters: either Scooby Doo, Dora or Shrek.
By the study's conclusion, all the children had sampled each type of food, both with and without character branding.
Overall, the children perceived foods that had character branding as being tastier than those that didn't, the researchers found.
However, the character branding of carrots, the healthiest option, was not quite as persuasive at driving taste as it was for the two less healthy options. This, the authors suggested, could be because healthy foods are character-branded much less often than junk foods.
"We think what might be going on with that is familiarity," Roberto theorized. "Which means that kids are simply really used to seeing characters on foods that are processed. And those foods are also more palatable, so the effects might be accentuated."
Roberto and her colleagues think the findings highlight the need to restrict the use of character licensing on certain unhealthy foods.
"We restrict this kind of cartoon marketing of cigarettes to kids because it's a public health issue," she noted. "We want to protect our children. So I think there's a great parallel there."
"So the priority should be first to get these characters off of unhealthy foods," she added. "And then as a goal ultimately to get them actually put on the packaging for healthy foods. But first we have to focus on dealing with the unhealthy options, because I don't think slapping them on healthy foods while they're still on unhealthy foods is going to work."
Rahil D. Briggs, director of Healthy Steps at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, agrees that combining popular imagery with unhealthful foods is problematic and likely contributing to the obesity epidemic.
"What is unique about children at this age is that although they have fairly advanced cognitive skills and short-term and long-term memory in place, they do not have the ability to be skeptical about the messages they are receiving," she said.
"So what we, as adults, think of as advertising -- and we know how persuasive it can be -- it is not different to them than simply choosing the Dora the Explorer coloring book over a random coloring book. They identify with the coloring book, and they want everything Dora, from soup to nuts."
It follows then, Briggs added, "that when in the grocery aisle with Mom absolutely they will choose the Dora cereal to complement the rest of their Dora collection."
She noted that the alarming increase in obesity among very young children -- rates have more than doubled since the 1970s, she said -- correlates with a parallel spike in the amount of money that the food industry spends on targeting advertising to very young children.
"So when you pair the very sweet foods with the character brands, it's almost too powerful for parents to battle," she concluded. "It's like a one-two punch."
For more on children and healthy weight, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.