For generations now, the grocery store tantrum has marked a rite of passage for parents. Somewhere in the snack aisle, a clenched-jaw parent is watching a child writhe in agony over a cardboard box with a cartoon character on it.
Today, researchers from Yale University announced the results of a small study which confirmed that, to children at least, food that's marketed with cartoons tastes better.
Forty children from the New Haven, Conn., area were asked to do a taste test of gummy fruit snacks, graham crackers and baby carrots. One bite came from food in a plain package with a simple label, and one bite came from a similar package that also had a Dora the Explorer, Shrek or a Scooby Doo sticker on the front.
Both packages had the same brand of snack, but the children consistently said that the food from packages with cartoons tasted better, according to a study published today in the journal Pediatrics.
Children in the study were aged 4-6, and most of them could name the cartoon characters used in the study. Ninety percent of the children recognized Dora the Explorer, 77 percent recognized Scooby Doo and 60 percent of them recognized Shrek.
Christina Roberto, lead author of the study, said the next step will be to study whether "spokescharacters" such as Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes or Toucan Sam of Fruit Loops hold more sway over the culinary tastes of children than cartoon characters from actual cartoon series.
"The food industry spends $1.6 billion on youth-targeted marketing and, of that, 13 percent is dedicated to character licensing and cross-promoting," said Roberto, a post-graduate student at Yale University and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "For the most part, these foods are of poor nutritional quality."
Eighty-five percent of the children in the study opted for the cartoon-decorated graham crackers over the plain-wrapped ones when presented with a choice of snack; 55 percent of them said the cartoon-decorated crackers actually tasted better. For gummy snacks, 85 percent chose the cartoon package over the plain one for a snack and 52 percent of the children thought the snacks in a cartoon-decorated package tasted better.
But researchers were surprised to find cartoons didn't have as much of an effect on the children's taste for carrots. Only 50 percent of children thought carrots tasted better from a cartoon-decorated package.
"Overall we expected to see more," said Roberto.
Roberto said the implication that cartoons are better at selling high-sugar snacks than nutritious snacks should be food for thought for regulators.
"In the U.K. there's an objective nutrition standard and a food has to meet that before it's marketed to kids during television programs," said Roberto.
Roberto and colleagues Jenny Baik, Jennifer L. Harris, and Kelly D. Brownell of Yale University argued that given the findings, "licensed characters on junk food packaging should be restricted."
"Parents can't do a whole lot, they have to go to the grocery store and they have to shop," said Roberto.
But many who treat childhood obesity say the real power should lie in the parents' hands.