MONDAY, Aug. 6 (HealthDay News) -- Most 3- and 5-year-olds who taste-tested a variety of foods said they preferred the ones in the McDonald's wrapper -- even though the foods were exactly the same, a new study finds.
The study suggests that, like adults, young children are highly influenced by branding, experts say.
"This study demonstrates simply and elegantly that advertising literally brainwashes young children into a baseless preference for certain food products," said Dr. David Katz, the director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.
"Children, it seems, literally do judge a food by its cover. And they prefer the cover they know," said Katz, who was not involved in the research.
The study was led by Dr. Thomas Robinson, the director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Packard Children's Hospital and associate professor of pediatrics and of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, in Stanford, Calif. His team had 63 children, ages 3 and 5, sample five foods: chicken nuggets, a hamburger, french fries, baby carrots and milk.
The chicken nuggets, hamburger and french fries were all from McDonald's; the carrots and milk were from a grocery store.
Each sample was divided into two portions: one wrapped in a McDonald's wrapper or placed in a McDonald's bag and the other in a wrapper without the McDonald's logo.
After taste-testing, the children more often said the chicken nuggets, fries, carrots and milk wrapped in the McDonald's logo tasted better, even though the foods were exactly the same.
"Kids don't just ask for food from McDonald's," Robinson said in a prepared statement. "They actually believe that the chicken nugget they think is from McDonald's tastes better than an identical, unbranded nugget."
Further research revealed that one-third of the children ate at McDonald's more than once a week, and more than three-quarters had McDonald's toys at home. In addition, the children in the study had an average of 2.4 televisions in their homes. More than half the kids had a TV in their bedrooms.
"We found that kids with more TVs in their homes and those who eat at McDonald's more frequently were even more likely to prefer the food in the McDonald's wrapper," Robinson said. "This is a company that knows what they're doing. Nobody else spends as much to advertise their fast-food products to children." It is estimated that McDonald's spend more than $1 billion dollars per year on U.S. advertising.
"It's really an unfair marketplace out there for young children," Robinson said. "It's very clear they cannot understand the persuasive nature of advertising."
The report is in the August issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
McDonald's responded by saying that it is dealing with the problem.
"This is an important subject, and McDonald's has been actively addressing it for quite some time," said McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker. "In fact, McDonald's is only advertising Happy Meals with white meat McNuggets, fresh apple slices and low-fat milk, a right-sized meal of only 375 calories," he said.
"The fact is, parents make the decisions for their children, and our research confirms that we've earned their trust as a responsible marketer based on decades of delivering the safest food, the highest quality toys and the kind of choice and variety today's families are looking for," Riker said.
Last December, McDonald's and nine other food companies announced the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. The company's agreed to devote at least half their advertising to promoting healthier choices for children.
But many experts remain unimpressed.
"There is general consensus among those of us in public health that the marketing of foods of poor nutritional quality to children should be regulated, if not abolished," Katz said.
Children in the United Sates are already subject to epidemic obesity and rising rates of what used to be adult onset diabetes, Katz said. Even greater threats, such as heart disease in adolescence, could become common should current trends persist, he added.
"We have a clear and compelling mandate to eliminate any influence we find that is propagating current trends," Katz said. "The branding of fast foods and junk foods into the minds of young children is one of those influences. When product familiarity is breeding ill health, it is time to put a stop to it."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can tell you more about childhood obesity.
SOURCES: David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Prevention Research Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; Walter Riker, spokesman, McDonald's Corporation, Oak Brook, Ill; Aug. 6, 2007, news release, Stanord University; August 2007, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine