During the lunch-hour rush Monday, Boston-area mother Jessica Riseberg stands in line at a McDonald's in Newton, Mass. Her 5-year-old daughter stands beside her, clearly excited to receive her lunch in the customary, brightly colored happy meal box.
The ritual is a twice-a-month treat for Riseberg's daughter -- though if the child had her way, it might happen more frequently.
"Every time we pass by an 'M,' the kids say that they are hungry," she said, "even if we have just eaten."
Now, new research suggests branding and packaging could be a big part of palatability when it comes to kids.
Researchers at Stanford University have found that children tend to rate food that is wrapped up in McDonald's-branded paper as tasting better than the same food wrapped in plain paper -- a finding that suggests that even the youngest consumers are heavily influenced by advertising.
The new study was released Monday in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
The study had 63 children, aged 3 to 5 years old, tasting five pairs of identical foods and beverages -- one in McDonald's wrapping and the other in unbranded packaging. The researchers then asked them a simple question: "Which one tastes better?"
An overwhelming number of the children said the food in the McDonald's wrapping was tastier.
Oddly enough, this applied even to vegetables and milk.
Sixty-one percent of the children in the study preferred the taste of carrots and 54 percent preferred the taste of milk if they were reminded by the packaging that it came from McDonald's.
Study author Dr. Thomas Robinson, professor of pediatrics and medicine at Stanford University, said he was somewhat surprised by the findings.
"I expected we would find some effects of branding in this age group, but not this strong, especially for the carrots and milk," he said.
Ads Cater to Kids
Food and beverage marketing to children is widespread, representing a $10 billion industry in the United States.
Past research has shown that children aged 2 to 6 years old are able to recognize familiar brand names, packaging, logos and characters and associate them with products. So the idea that kids in this impressionable age group could be influenced by packaging is not altogether surprising.
"Three to 5 years of age is the age at which kids become most responsive to outward stimuli and externally driven," said Keith Ayoob, a pediatric nutritionist and professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein Medical College.
But the new research showed that packaging alone may send strong messages about the taste of the food that the child is about to eat.
Dr. Robinson noted that during the tasting there were "no Happy Meals, no movie characters, no Ronald McDonald… I would expect the effects to be even stronger if we included any of those."
A New Happy Meal
The authors suggest advertising directed at children should be regulated or even banned, stating that children younger than 7 to 8 years old do not understand the persuasive intent of advertising.
It is an idea with which Kelly Brownell, a professor of psychology at Yale University who specializes in nutrition, agrees.
"The results help support calls for limiting marketing to young children and suggest as well that marketing, if done for healthier products, might help make things better," he remarked.
But there may be another solution. Ayoob proposed that the standard Happy Meal should encompass healthier options.
"That way parents and kids have to ask [specifically] for the less healthy alternative," he said, adding as an example that under such a plan customers would have to ask for a soda instead of milk.
"We always knew that kids were susceptible to advertising. Now we have to look at what we are advertising to them," Ayoob said.
Robinson agreed. "Our findings also suggest that if McDonald's and other fast food corporations spent the same billions to market healthful foods instead of high fat, calorie-dense foods, they might be able to improve children's nutrition instead of hurting it."
Not a Fair Food Fight
While parents like Riseberg say they are happy that there are healthier food options available at fast food restaurants, they also know that kids are going to want to eat what tastes good -- namely, chicken nuggets and French fries.
It is at this point, Ayoob said, that parents must be firm in laying down the ground rules for good nutrition.
"Parents play a big role," Ayoob said. "In the end, it is up to them to say yes or no."
But Brownell said parents are fighting an uphill battle.
"Parents hold some responsibility to be sure, but they are a drop against a tidal wave when one considers who industry has at their disposal -- characters like Sponge Bob, sports heroes and other celebrities… It is not a fair fight."