MONDAY, March 7 (HealthDay News) -- Children prefer cereals that feature popular media characters such as Shrek on the package, regardless of how they taste, researchers say.
"This tells us what we've probably already guessed: that young children are going to be more likely to enjoy their cereal if it has one of their favorite characters on it," said Keri Gans, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and author of the forthcoming book, The Small Change Diet.
Gans was not involved with the new study, which is published in the March issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
But the good news is that when there is no licensed cartoon character featured on the box, kids prefer a cereal whose name suggests healthy eating rather than sugar consumption.
"Trade characters are used to help young children remember and identify products. They're a visual cue," said study co-author Sarah Vaala, a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
And those characters are usually found on foods with more dubious nutritional value.
A study out of Yale University that was released last June 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.
"Kids transfer their favorable attitudes for that character to the product and want to buy it more," Vaala said. "We wanted to know if that transfer extended to the actual taste of a food product, whether putting these friendly, well-known characters on products subconsciously influences their judgment of the product."
After scouring supermarkets for cereals that were "sweet, but not too sweet [6 to 9 grams of sugar], not widely available and not advertised on TV," the researchers settled on Clifford Crunch, which is typically found in Whole Foods markets but not other supermarkets, explained Matt Lapierre, study lead author and a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School.
Clifford Crunch cereal boxes already feature their own licensed character -- Clifford, a giant red dog who appears in books and cartoon shows for young children. In their experiment, however, the researchers used only the lightly sweetened cereal and packaged it in boxes that were professionally created to resemble new cereals.
Choosing a character for some of the "new" cereal boxes they designed was more of an ordeal, but Mumble and Gloria, penguins from the movie Happy Feet, were both popular with small children and not already displayed on a cereal box.
The researchers then showed one of four different cereal boxes to 80 children aged 4 to 6 years. Two of the boxes were labeled "Sugar Bits" and two "Healthy Bits." One of each of the "brands" had the penguin pair displayed on the front and the other two didn't. All contained the same Clifford Crunch cereal.
Most of the children liked the cereal, but they liked it significantly more if the box featured the penguin cartoon characters, the investigators found.
But children preferred the cereal named "Healthy Bits" over "Sugar Bits," suggesting that some health-promoting messages are getting through, the study authors noted.
The researchers found that "the mere presence of a [cartoon] character on food packaging" seemed to override the children's good judgment, however. When the cartoon penguins appeared on the cereal box, children in the "Sugar Bits" group reported liking the cereal just as much as the children who were in the "Healthy Bits" group, suggesting that their perception of taste was influenced by the cartoon branding, the researchers noted.
However, "children who received the cereal named Sugar Bits with no character on the box reported enjoying the cereal's taste significantly less than children in each of the other three groups," they added.
"Part of selling wholesomeness to parents may be spilling over to kids," Vaala said.
Overall, though, she said, "there's something really disconcerting happening here. We're working really hard these days to tell kids to eat healthy, and it does seem to be resonating. But we're kind of tricking them because the friendly characters on the packaging trump that judgment."
But there may be a way to use the findings to advantage, Gans said.
"Instead of being used as a negative bit of information, why not use this as a positive? Take these cartoon characters and put them on high-fiber, low-sugar cereals, and target them to children," she suggested. "This should be an opportunity for food manufacturers who are concerned about the obesity epidemic in our youth to get them to choose healthier cereals."
For more on children and healthy weight, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: Matthew A. Lapierre, M.A., doctoral candidate, Annenberg School for Communications, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Sarah E. Vaala, M.A., doctoral candidate, Annenberg School for Communications, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Keri Gans, R.D., M.S., spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association and author The Small Change Diet; March 2011, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine
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