August 23, 2012 7:53 am

Cartoon characters key to influencing kids to eat healthier, studies show

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TORONTO – Parents, if you’re having trouble making your kids eat their fruits and vegetables, it may be time to call in the likes of Elmo and Batman.

The iconic Muppet and the caped crusader can persuade kids to choose healthier snacks, such as apples over French fries and even cookies, scientists at the Cornell University say.

While on a mission to uncover how healthy food can be appealing to youth, the researchers say they learned that parents can “exploit” popular cartoon characters in the same way that fast food companies manipulate kids with flashy packaging and free toys.

“If we’re trying to promote healthier foods, we need to be as smart as the companies that are selling the less-healthy foods,” David Just, co-author of the study, told Reuters. Just is the co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in the Child Nutrition Program.

“The message should be fight fire with fire,” he told the wire service.

Cornell University’s labs have discovered twice that cartoon characters should be hailed as superheroes in the fight against fast food.

In a study released Wednesday, Just tested 208 eight- to 11-year-old kids in suburban and rural schools every day at lunchtime for a week.

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Children were offered an apple, a cookie, or both, to accompany their lunch. On some days, the snacks were marked with stickers or were in packaging while on other days, they weren’t.

When the snacks were plain, without any branding, more than 90 per cent of the kids reached for the cookie over the apple.

But once researchers slapped an Elmo sticker on the fruit, 37 per cent of the kids chose the apple.

The complete findings were published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

The study follows another report out of Cornell University – this time from the school’s Food and Brand lab – that showed that Batman could encourage healthier eating.

In this case, 22 kids were asked to choose between French fries or sliced apples. Not surprisingly, the vast majority reached for the French fries.

In another round, the kids were interviewed before looking at both snacks.

Researchers asked their subjects about their favourite cartoon characters, such as Batman, and what they’d eat.

When it came time to select their snack of choice, 45 per cent of the kids wanted the apple slices.

This question – “Which snack would Batman eat?” – triggered a more positive response to the healthier snack than simply asking kids which food they thought was healthier, which had no effect.

The researchers hope their findings will offer parents a second wind – and an approach that may be more successful in convincing kids to eat fruits and vegetables.

The studies build on Canadian findings released earlier this month that suggest that kids are more likely to pick a healthier meal over classic fast-food fare if the nutritional option came with a toy.

University of Waterloo researchers, in this case, found that kids were three times more likely to pick a McDonald’s Happy Meal with apple slices with caramel sauce and water over fries and pop if the fruit came with a toy.

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