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Kids rate cereal tastier with media characters on the box

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Cereal taste and packaging

Nutrition doesn’t matter much when it comes to how cereal tastes for kids. In a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, researchers found out popular media characters like Ronald McDonald, Dora the Explorer and dancing penguins from the movie “Happy Feet” made cereal taste better than boxes without media characters.

Cartoon characters consistently influenced cereal taste for children

In the study, conducted by Matthew A. Lapierre, M.A, Sarah E. Vaala, MA, of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and colleagues, children consistently said they liked the taste of cereals packaged with media characters.

The researchers conducted “taste” tests on 80 children between the ages of 4 and 6, finding cartoon characters influence children’s perception of taste especially for high sugar content cereals.

When the children were given boxes labeled either “Healthy Bits” or “Sugar Bits” – some with characters and some without – they invariably said they liked the cereal with their favorite characters on the packaging.

Kids who sampled the cereal they were told was name Healthy Bits said they liked it better than children who were given the same cereal with the name Sugar Bits, but still rated all of the cereals as better tasting when characters – even those they didn’t recognize – were present on the packaging.

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The study authors concluded, “The use of media characters on food packaging affects children's subjective taste assessment. Messages encouraging healthy eating may resonate with young children, but the presence of licensed characters on packaging potentially overrides children's assessments of nutritional merit.”

Cereals sampled included Fruit Loops Marshmallows and Cheerios in pre-designed packages, served dry. The children rated the cereal with smiley faces on a one to five scale.

Past studies have suggested food advertisements can lead to poor nutritional choices. In 2005, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies found food marketing directed at children ages 12 and under leads them to make poor nutritional choices.

Committee chair J. Michael McGinnis, senior scholar, Institute of Medicine recommended at the time that efforts should be made to ensure “licensed characters are only used for the promotion of food and beverages that support healthful diets for children and youth”, in the IOM’s Executive Summary,” Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?”

Even though the kids liked all of the cereal, the taste ratings went up when there was a media character present on the box. The researchers say cereal food packaging can hinder children’s assessment of food nutrition, overriding messages to eat healthy.

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2011;165[3]:229-234