While Cookie Monster and other kid-friendly characters have long been close allies of junk food makers, Cornell researchers have found that these childhood heroes may help kids choose healthy snacks over those of the chocolate chip variety.
In a study published in the August issue of the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, the researchers found that marketing tools used to promote unhealthy snacks could also be used to help kids choose healthier options in schoo l cafeterias.
“Nutritionists and school lunch planners can turn the tables on children’s poor eating habits by adopting the same ‘branding’ tactic used by junk food marketers,” Prof. Brian Wansink, applied economics and management, said in a press release.
In the study, 208 children between the ages of eight and 11 from seven upstate New York schools were given the choice of a cookie, an apple, or both as part of their lunch. When both choices were unlabeled, more than 95 percent chose the cookie, but only 20 percent chose the apple, according to MedPage Today.
However, 37 percent of kids chose to take an apple when it displayed a sticker with the image of Elmo on it. This led the researchers to conclude that branding had a significant impact on children's’ food choices, and may be even more effective for healthier foods than for "indulgent, highly processed foods," they wrote.
“Branding has tremendous potential to promote healthier eating. We tend to associate mascots and characters with junk food, but they can also be used to build excitement around healthy foods,” Wansink said in the press release. “This is a powerful lesson for fast food companies, food activists and people involved in school food service.”