Can Shrek and Dora combat the junk food epidemic?

by Michael Smith

Can Dora the Explorer help kids find a taste for carrots?

It may be possible that licensed characters such as Dora, Shrek, and Scooby-Doo can tilt the balance away from junk food and toward healthy snacks, according to Christina Roberto, MS, and colleagues at Yale University.

In a study of 40 preschoolers, the presence of a licensed character on a package influenced the children’s perception of taste and their preference in snacks, Roberto and colleagues wrote online in Pediatrics.

One implication of the findings is that the use of such images on junk food packaging should be restricted, the authors said.

Although the use of such characters in marketing aimed at children has been criticized, there is little research into its effect on eating behavior. To help fill the gap, Roberto and colleagues enrolled 40 children, with an average age of 5, from four child-care centers.

The children were asked to taste three types of snacks — graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and baby carrots. The snacks were packaged identically, except that some packages of each type of snack bore an image of Dora, Shrek, or Scooby-Doo.

Participants were asked to taste a sample of each from one package and then from the other. Then the investigators asked which tasted better and which they would prefer for a snack.

Roberto and colleagues found:

* Three children preferred the taste of graham crackers in the plain wrapper, 22 preferred the branded snack, and 15 thought they tested the same. They overwhelmingly said they’d like the branded product for a snack — 35 versus five. The differences for both questions were significant at P<0.001.

* Four children liked the plain-wrapped gummy snacks, compared with 21 who liked the branded version, and 15 who tasted no difference. Six said they’d pick the plain package for a snack, and 34 opted for the branded version. Again the differences were significant at P<0.001.

* 10 children liked the carrots in the plain wrapper, 10 thought there was no difference in taste, and 20 preferred the branded version, but the differences did not reach significance. On the other hand, only 11 said they’d pick the plain package for a snack, compared with 29 who liked the branded carrots — a difference that was significant at P=0.004.

The researchers said the study is “empirical evidence” that marketing using licensed characters has an influence on children’s taste and snack preferences.

The finding suggests two possible strategies, they said — restricting licensed characters on junk food or using them to promote healthy foods.

But the fact that the influence on taste perception was weakest for carrots may mean the second approach “may not be an effective strategy,” they said.

On the other hand, they noted the sample size of the study was small, which may have limited their ability to find a significant effect in that case.

Roberto and colleagues noted that one important limitation of the study is that the experimenters knew the study hypothesis and may have inadvertently influenced responses.

Michael Smith is a MedPage Today North American Correspondent.

Originally published in MedPage Today. Visit MedPageToday.com for more pediatrics news.

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