It's not the food, it's the brand name. Marketing strongly affects 4-year-olds' food preferences, find Stanford University pediatrics researcher Thomas N. Robinson, M.D., and colleagues.
Robinson and colleagues studied 63 low-income children enrolled in Head Start centers in California. The kids ranged in age from 3 years to 5 years.
Told they were playing a food-tasting game, the kids sat at a table with a screen across the middle. A researcher reached around either side of the screen to put out two identical food samples: slices of a hamburger, french fries, chicken nuggets, milk, or baby carrots.
The only difference between the pairs of food samples was that one came in a plain wrapper, cup, or bag, and the other came in a clean, unused McDonald's wrapper, cup, or bag. The kids were asked whether they liked one of the foods best, or whether they tasted the same.
In all cases, the majority of the kids said the "best" foods were those linked to the McDonald's brand, even though the only differences between the bags were the McDonald's logos (no special advertising materials were used).
Kids who preferred "McFood" tended to live in homes with a greater number of television sets and tended to eat at McDonald's more often than kids not influenced by the McDonald's brand name.
"Children preferred the taste of carrots and milk if they thought they were from McDonald's," Robinson and colleagues conclude. "This is an opportunity for heavily marketed brands to respond to rising rates of childhood obesity by changing their product offerings."
McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker says McDonald's is doing just that.
"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," Riker tells WebMD. "Additionally, our recent program with 'Shrek' was our biggest-ever promotion of fruits, vegetables, and milk, another indication of our progressive approach to responsible marketing."
Riker says McDonald's own research "confirms that we've earned [parents'] 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."
In December 2005, the prestigious Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a CDC-funded study on food marketing to children. The study found that advertisers used highly sophisticated techniques to target children who are too young to know the difference between advertising claims and truth.
As a result, the IOM study showed, companies succeed in getting children to eat ever more high-calorie, low-nutrient, and high-profit, junk food.
The Robinson study appears in the August issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. The journal last year published a series of studies linking media messages to harmful effects on children's health, including child obesity.
Three-year-olds, one of the studies found, are three times more likely to be overweight if they spend two or more hours a day in a room with a TV on.
"Past studies have shown that the content of children's TV commercials is overwhelmingly about junk food," University of Michigan researcher Julie C. Lumeng, M.D., told WebMD last year. "And if you show kids commercials, they ask for the junk food. So it may be the TV, even at this early age, is shaping their food preferences."
By Daniel DeNoon
Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D.
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