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.
"It does bring up the point that there is an influence of cartoon characters -- they're in business for a reason," said Keith Thomas Ayoob, professor of pediatrics and a registered dietitian at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
"Should it be restricted? No. That's what you have parents for," he said.
Ayoob noted, as did the authors of the study, that recent attempts to put cartoon characters on healthier food have shown to be effective. Ayoob disclosed that he worked with Disney (which owns ABC News) to choose which foods in theme parks could carry a cartoon character. He said the "strict" limits meant only foods with good nutrition could have a cartoon character on them.
"It has been shown to be successful that kids would eat a bag of carrots if their favorite character is on it," said Ayoob. "It's a tool. I have a hard time thinking these characters should be restricted."
"I think parents have a whole lot more influence and should have a whole lot more influence than characters on a package," he said.
Ayoob advises parents in his clinic to have a simple policy when it comes to grocery shopping and unhealthy foods. If a tantrum happens -- the child doesn't get the food.
"Parents often say I don't want a fight," he said. "Tantrums make your decision making easier. Once you have a tantrum, you never get it."
Registered dietitian Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo said food with cartoon characters on the packaging is a common "hurdle" for parents trying to feed children a nutritious meal.
"Certainly some of these character snack foods can have merit in a healthy diet, however more often than not they are low in nutrients and high in calories," said Gazzaniga-Moloo, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Yet despite the difficulty, Gazzaniga-Moloo said she thought the small study was not enough to call for regulations cartoon character marketing.
"It was nice to see that the study was done. It's always nice to have documentation of influences on eating behavior," she said. "But I think that we need a little more studies to see whether or not we want that type of action. I think it's a little premature."