A new US study suggests that preschool children prefer the taste of fast food and drinks from McDonald’s branded packages to the same food and drinks from unbranded packages.

The study is reported in the August issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the journals in the JAMA/Archives.

The incentive for the study is explained in the paper’s introduction which describes how food marketing that targets children is widespread:

“The food and beverage industries spend more than 10 billion dollars per year to market to children in the United States,” wrote the authors.

By the time they are two years old children may already have beliefs about certain brands, and by the age of 6 they can recognize brands and say which products they belong to.

Thomas N Robinson of the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, and colleagues carried out the study where 63 preschool children aged between 3 and 5 tasted 5 pairs of packages of the same McDonald’s food and drinks. One of the pair in each case bore the McDonald’s brand, while the other was unbranded, in plain packages.

Altogether the children performed over 300 tasting comparisons.

The food that the children tasted was: a quarter of a McDonald’s hamburger, a Chicken McNugget, some McDonald’s french fries, and two baby carrots.

The drink they tasted was about three ounces of 1 per cent fat milk, or apple juice in the case of one participant who was not allowed milk.

The parents then filled out a questionnaire about their children’s age, race and ethnicity, and how familiar they were with McDonald’s food and toys and also about their television viewing habits and preferences.

The results showed that:

  • On average, the children preferred the taste of the food and drink in the McDonald’s packaging over the identical products in unmarked packaging.
  • The result for hamburgers was 48.3 per cent vs. 36.7 per cent.
  • For chicken nuggets the result was 59 per cent vs. 18 per cent.
  • For baby carrots the result was 54.1 per cent vs. 23 per cent.
  • For french fries the result was 76.7 per cent vs. 13.3 per cent.
  • For milk or apple juice the result was 61.3 per cent vs. 21 per cent.
  • Futher analysis showed that 4 out of 5 times, children preferred the taste of food and drink that they thought was from McDonald’s.
  • Preschool children who had more TV sets in their homes, and children who ate McDonald’s foods more frequently were also more likely to prefer McDonald’s branded food and drink to the identical unbranded items.

The authors suggested this study strengthened the justification for tighter regulation or banning of advertising and marketing of high calorie, low nutrient food and drink, if not of all marketing that is aimed at young children.

“Future research might examine the effects of less recognizable brands or contrast different brands and packaging with variable levels of recognition and natural exposure,” they wrote.

They also suggested more studies were needed on how marketing and branding could be used to promote healthy eating in young children, and that food companies that heavily target youngsters could help reduce the growing problem of childhood obesity by offering healthier alternatives.

A spokesman for McDonald’s told WebMD they are already doing this, and cited a recent campaign featuring the animation character “Shrek” to promote fruit, vegetables and milk. He said this was “another indication of our progressive approach to responsible marketing”.

“Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children’s Taste Preferences.”
Thomas N. Robinson; Dina L. G. Borzekowski; Donna M. Matheson; Helena C. Kraemer.
Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161:792-797.
Vol. 161 No. 8, August 2007.

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Written by: Catharine Paddock