Favorite Cartoon Characters Make Food Taste Better, Study Finds

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A 2008 Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report found that 44 of America’s major food and beverage marketers spend $1.6 billion each year to promote their products to children and adolescents under the age of 17. It appears to be working, because a more recent Yale University study found that the presence of a licensed character on a food package influenced the children’s perception of taste and their preference in snacks.

In a study of 40 preschool children with an average age of 5, Christina Roberto MS and colleagues presented each with three types of snacks – graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and baby carrots. The snacks were identical except that some of the packages had three popular cartoon characters on the package – Dora the Explorer, Shrek, or Scooby-Doo.

After tasting the snacks, first from a plain wrapper and then the branded version, the children in most cases reported that they preferred the taste of the product that had the cartoon character on the packaging.

Previous proprietary studies conducted by the Sesame Workshop had similar results. The presence of Elmo on food packaging encouraged children to choose broccoli over a plainly wrapped chocolate bar. Although the authors did not measure taste perception, adding familiar and fun characters that children relate to can encourage healthy food choices, at least at the point of sale.

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“If you associate certain products with things that are otherwise considered fun, it’s going to make those products seem more desirable,” says Dr. Thomas Robinson MD, a professor of child health at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Seapoint Farms, the largest importer and manufacturer of edamame products in the United States, is already doing this with a line of Thaw and Serve packages of the low-fat, high protein soybean snack. In January of 2007, the company signed a multi-year licensing agreement with Nickelodeon/Viacom and created SpongeBob SquarePants Organic Edamame Pods and Dora the Explorer Shelled Edamame snack pouches.

Keith Thomas Ayoob, professor of pediatrics and registered dietitian at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, notes that other recent attempts to put cartoon characters on healthier food has also been effective. He notes that Disney has strict limits on which foods in their theme parks carry a cartoon character on their packaging and only those foods with good nutrition would be allowed.

"It has been shown to be successful that kids would eat a bag of carrots if their favorite character is on it," said Ayoob, who is also a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "It's a tool. I have a hard time thinking these characters should be restricted."

Source reference:
Roberto CA et al. "Influence of licensed characters on children's taste and snack preferences" Pediatrics 2010; 126: 88-93.

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