Kids Say Food Tastes Better When It's Shaped Like a Cartoon Ogre
Macaroni and cheese -- at least in a kid's world -- rates as a delicacy. Put the pasta in a shape vaguely resembling Shrek, however, and oo la la!
Move over, caviar. Get out of town, crab louie. Dining doesn't get any finer.
Here's a little secret Julia Child never taught you: Food actually tastes better when it's in the shape of a popular cartoon character. Even simply slapping a picture of Shrek or Dora the Explorer on the box heightens the flavor.
So say food critics who haven't hit puberty, anyway.
Researchers for the Federal Trade Commission asked 40 kids -- ranging in age from 4 to 6 -- about food modeled after cartoon characters. The kids said they preferred the taste of pasta, cookies, fruity snacks and other foods (and food-like substances) when there was a cartoon character involved.
The study was funded by the nonprofit Rudd Foundation, which funds the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Researchers interviewed children attending day care centers in New Haven, Conn., as well as the kids' parents.
The results will appear in the July issue of the professional journal Pediatrics.
Using popular characters to sell food is nothing new. When he wasn't fighting for truth and justice, Superman hawked his own brand of bread in 1942. Not to be outdone, Batman had his own bread by 1966. Both heroes also had their own lines of peanut butter.
Food and beverage companies in the United States spend close to a billion dollars a year marketing products to children younger than 12, according to WebMD. The FTC study found characters from more than 80 television shows and movies were included in these efforts.
What industry executives may not have known -- because researchers say it hasn't really been studied before -- is that kids don't just go for the cartoonish shapes of the food or the characters on the packaging. They really believe the food tastes better.
"Obviously, the food industry has studied the impact of character branding, but those studies are proprietary," Yale doctoral candidate and study researcher Christina A. Roberto tells WebMD.
Each child in the study was presented two separate packages containing the same snack. The packages were identical, except for one thing: One had a sticker featuring Scooby-Doo, Dora the Explorer or Shrek.
Guess which snacks the kids said tasted better?
The experiment was conducted with graham crackers, fruit-flavored snacks and organic baby carrots.
Researchers concluded the use of cartoon characters should be restricted because kids are so easily seduced by the marketing ploy. Cartoons also have been used to sell vegetables and other nutritious food, but researchers say that's just a small percentage of industry efforts.
"If the fruit and vegetable industry had more money to market their foods to kids, I would be very happy," Dr. Margo Wootan, of the nutrition research and advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells WebMD. "Junk foods are marketed in such sophisticated and persuasive ways, it is no surprise that these are the foods kids want to eat."
Related: Mexico to Ban Junk Food from Schools to Fight Childhood Obesity
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.