Cartoons on food packaging, and in particularly down the cereal aisle, certainly influence a child wanting their parents to buy the package with Shrek, Donkey or Princess Fiona on them. More often than not, these are used by manufactures to sell the sugary items that provide little to no nutritional value for kids. There is good news though; a new study found 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.

Sarah Vaala, a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia states:

"Kids transfer their favorable attitudes for that character to the product and want to buy it more. 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. Trade characters are used to help young children remember and identify products. They're a visual cue."

Researchers implemented a blind study of sorts filling four boxes with the same type of "middle of the road" cereal in terms of nutritional value. Using penguin characters from Warner Brother's "Happy Feet," 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 penguins displayed on the front and the other two didn't. All boxes contained the same cereal.

Most of the children liked the cereal in general, but they liked it significantly more if the box featured the penguin cartoon characters, the investigators found. Interestingly enough, the children preferred the cereal named Healthy Bits over Sugar Bits, suggesting that some health-promoting messages are getting through over time.

Vaala continues:

"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. 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. 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."

The rate of obesity among children and adolescents in the United States has nearly tripled between the early 1980s and 2000. It has however not changed significantly between 2000 and 2006 with the most recent statistics showing a level just over 17%. In 2008, the rate of overweight and obese children in the United States was 32%, and had stopped climbing.

The first problems to occur in obese children are usually emotional or psychological. Childhood obesity however can also lead to life-threatening conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep problems, cancer, and other disorders. Some of the other disorders would include liver disease, early puberty or menarche, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, skin infections, and asthma and other respiratory problems.

So can Shrek sell Brussels sprouts too?

Source: Pediatrics Journal

Written by Sy Kraft, B.A.