Elmo May Help Kids Choose Fruits and Veggies Over Junk Food

A carefully chosen sticker or brand might be a simple way to help children pick healthy foods over processed snacks for lunch.

Leslie Carrara-Rudolph (left) talks with Sesame Street puppet charactor Elmo on Nov. 9, 2009 in New York on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the broadcast of the children's television show. (Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Aug 20, 2012
Kelly Zhou has written on a variety of topics for TakePart, predominantly politics, education, and wildlife.

Targeted branding can influence kids to make healthy food choices, according to a new Cornell University study that compared apples to cookies.

“This study suggests that the use of branding or appealing branded characters may benefit healthier foods more than indulgent, more highly processed foods,” the research report said.

In the experiment, 208 kids aged 8-11 in New York schools were offered an apple and/or a cookie after getting lunch. When offered apples with stickers of familiar characters like Elmo, children were more likely to choose the apple versus an unbranded cookie. When cookies branded with stickers and plain apples were offered, there was no effect. The Elmo sticker led kids to double their apple choice, but there was no impact of the Elmo icon on cookies.  When both the healthy and unhealthy snacks were unbranded, the percentage of kids who took cookies was substantially higher.

MORE: Evidence Is Mounting: Anti-Junk Food Laws Work

Brian Wansink, a professor in Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics & Management, led the study. Wansink is also part of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, which has produced research showing that asking kids “What would your favorite superhero eat?” could prime them to make healthier fast food choices.

In that study, 22 kids at a summer camp were offered french fries or apple slices from a popular fast-food restaurant. The scientists used photos of fictional role models and asked the children what they thought admirable models would eat—for example, “What would Batman eat?” Given the right prompting, more children chose the healthier choice.

In both studies, giving the subjects certain brands or figures to focus on helped guide them toward better food options.

“Just as attractive names have been shown to increase the selection of healthier foods in school lunchrooms, brands and cartoon characters can do the same with preliterate children,” the study said.

Would you support branding fruits and veggies to improve your kids’ food habits? Let us know in the comments.

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