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.