Daily Archives: August 13, 2010

Parents Beware: Cartoon Characters Sell Kids on Unhealthy Foods

Using the likes of Shrek and Dora to market treats should be banned, researcher says. Why? Because popular cartoon characters are negatively influencing the taste preferences of very young children, and not in a positive way, a new study suggests.Here are the details from HealthDay News: —

Researchers found that the branding of American food product packaging with characters such as Dora the Explorer drives preschoolers to choose higher-calorie, less healthful foods over more nutritious options.

“The bottom line is that when kids are presented with a choice of graham crackers, fruit snacks or carrots, and the only difference is that one package has a licensed character on it, they actually think that the food with the character tastes better,” said study author Christina Roberto, a doctoral student working at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

The findings, reported online June 21 in Pediatrics, reflect on the food preferences of 4- to 6-year-old boys and girls who found foods tastier when the packaging bore the likenesses of beloved TV and movie characters.

The authors looked at 40 preschoolers — described as “ethnically diverse” — attending four child-care centers in New Haven. Over the course of two visits, the team presented the children with samples from three different food types: low-nutrient/low-energy graham crackers; low-nutrient/high-energy gummy fruit snacks; and high-nutrient/low-energy baby carrots.

All the foods were packaged with the same color, shape and design, with one brandless and one branded example from each food category. Branded versions bore the likenesses of eminently recognizable cartoon characters: either Scooby Doo, Dora or Shrek.

By the study’s conclusion, all the children had sampled each type of food, both with and without character branding.

Overall, the children perceived foods that had character branding as being tastier than those that didn’t, the researchers found.

However, the character branding of carrots, the healthiest option, was not quite as persuasive at driving taste as it was for the two less healthy options. This, the authors suggested, could be because healthy foods are character-branded much less often than junk foods.

“We think what might be going on with that is familiarity,” Roberto theorized. “Which means that kids are simply really used to seeing characters on foods that are processed. And those foods are also more palatable, so the effects might be accentuated.”

Roberto and her colleagues think the findings highlight the need to restrict the use of character licensing on certain unhealthy foods.

“We restrict this kind of cartoon marketing of cigarettes to kids because it’s a public health issue,” she noted. “We want to protect our children. So I think there’s a great parallel there.”

“So the priority should be first to get these characters off of unhealthy foods,” she added. “And then as a goal ultimately to get them actually put on the packaging for healthy foods. But first we have to focus on dealing with the unhealthy options, because I don’t think slapping them on healthy foods while they’re still on unhealthy foods is going to work.”

Rahil D. Briggs, director of Healthy Steps at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, agrees that combining popular imagery with unhealthful foods is problematic and likely contributing to the obesity epidemic.

“What is unique about children at this age is that although they have fairly advanced cognitive skills and short-term and long-term memory in place, they do not have the ability to be skeptical about the messages they are receiving,” she said.

“So what we, as adults, think of as advertising — and we know how persuasive it can be — it is not different to them than simply choosing the Dora the Explorer coloring book over a random coloring book. They identify with the coloring book, and they want everything Dora, from soup to nuts.”

It follows then, Briggs added, “that when in the grocery aisle with Mom absolutely they will choose the Dora cereal to complement the rest of their Dora collection.”

She noted that the alarming increase in obesity among very young children — rates have more than doubled since the 1970s, she said — correlates with a parallel spike in the amount of money that the food industry spends on targeting advertising to very young children.

“So when you pair the very sweet foods with the character brands, it’s almost too powerful for parents to battle,” she concluded. “It’s like a one-two punch.”

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Kids Like Cartoon-Branded Snacks Better

A new study is showing that children find foods taste better if the packages feature popular cartoon characters. Once simply the world’s best-known cartoon, canine detective Scooby-Doo is now also a popular pitchman for pasta, cookies, “fruit” snacks, and other foods marketed to young children. And, SpongeBob SquarePants, Shrek, Dora the Explorer, and many other cartoon characters also do double duty selling junk food and sometimes healthy foods to kids, and this new research clearly shows why manufacturers use them.

The study found that foods packaged with popular cartoon characters really do taste better – or at least they do to 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds. The effect was not as great with carrots as with less healthy fruit-flavored gummies and graham crackers, but more children said they preferred the taste of all three snacks when the foods bore the image of a familiar cartoon face. Here are the details from WebMD:

Cartoon Branding Is Big Business

Food and beverage companies in the U.S. spend close to a billion dollars each year on marketing aimed at children under age 12, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). An FTC investigation found that in 2006 alone, food product cross promotions involved about 80 movies, TV shows, or animated characters that appeal primarily to young children.

Although the selling power of these cross promotions is well known within the food industry, the impact of such marketing on children’s food preferences and food choices has not been widely investigated elsewhere. The newly published study was paid for by the nonprofit group the Rudd Foundation, which funds the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

“Obviously the food industry has studied the impact of character branding, but those studies are proprietary,” Yale doctoral candidate and study researcher Christina A. Roberto, tells WebMD.

The Yale study included 40 children aged 4 to 6 attending day care centers in New Haven, Conn., and their parents. It appears in the July issue of Pediatrics.

Kids Preferred ‘Scooby’ Snacks

Parents completed questionnaires designed to establish how much time their children spent watching TV or movies.

In the experiment phase of the study, each child was presented two separate packages containing the same snack. The packages were identical except for one thing: one had a sticker bearing the likeness of one of three cartoon characters — Scooby Doo, Dora the Explorer, or Shrek.

The children were asked to taste each identical sample and tell the investigator if the two samples tasted the same or, if not, which one tasted better. They were also asked if the loved the food, liked it, disliked it, or hated it.

The experiment was conducted three times with each child: once with graham cracker sticks, once with gummy fruit-flavored snacks, and once with organic baby carrots.

As expected, more children said they preferred the taste of the graham crackers and gummies when the packages bore the likeness of one of the cartoon characters. More kids also said they preferred the taste of the cartoon-branded carrots, but the effect was weaker and failed to reach statistical significance.

SpongeBob Soybeans OK, Advocate Says

The Yale researchers say the findings confirm that branding food products with characters children recognize influences taste preferences, especially for high-calorie foods with little nutritional value.

They conclude that the use of licensed characters on such foods should be restricted, arguing that this would be more likely to improve the diets of children than using the familiar likenesses to sell healthy foods.

TV network Nickelodeon has licensed many of its most popular characters, including SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer, to several fruit and vegetable companies. In recent years their images have appeared on packages of fresh and frozen spinach, carrots, clementine oranges, and edamame (soybeans).

Margo Wootan, DSc, of the nutrition research and advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, says she sees no problem with putting the familiar cartoon images on these foods and other healthy foods kids should be eating.

The problem, she says, is that advertising budgets for such foods are small compared to highly processed foods like gummy fruit snacks, which she calls candy marketed as fruit.

“If the fruit and vegetable industry had more money to market their foods to kids, I would be very happy,” she says. “Junk foods are marketed in such sophisticated and persuasive ways, it is no surprise that these are the foods kids want to eat.”

The food industry trade group Manufacturers Association did not respond to a request for comment on the study from WebMD in time for publishing.

If you’d like to learn more about how to improve your and your family’s nutrition, consider ordering a copy of my book, SuperSized Kids: How to protect your child from the obesity threat. Autographed hard cover and soft cover copies are available here.

Study: Elective Abortion More Than Triples Breast Cancer Risk

A study out of Sri Lanka has found that women who had abortions more than tripled their risk of breast cancer. The study focused on analyzing the association between the duration of breastfeeding and the risk of breast cancer.  But the researchers also reported other “significant” risk factors for breast cancer, such as passive smoking and being post-menopausal.  The highest of the reported risk factors was abortion.

The study, entitled “Prolonged breastfeeding reduces risk of breast cancer in Sri Lankan women: A case-control study,” was led by Malintha De Silva and colleagues from the University of Colombo.

Here are some of the details from Life Site News: The researchers found that among women who breastfed for between 12-23 months there was a 66.3% risk reduction in comparison to those who had never breastfed and those who breastfed for between 0 and 11 months. The risk reduction climbed to 87.4% for those who breastfed for 24-35 months and 94% among women who breastfed for 36-47 months.

Dr. Joel Brind, an epidemiologist at the City University of New York, cautioned that the researchers do not clearly indicate whether they are referring specifically to induced abortions, as opposed to spontaneous abortions (miscarriage).  Requests for clarification have not yet been answered.

However, in the study the researchers compare their findings with other studies that focused on induced abortions, seeming to suggest that induced abortion was their focus.

According to Dr. Brind, an expert on the association of abortion and breast cancer, the findings are consistent with studies from other populations where abortion rates are low. He explained that in epidemiology, risk factors are best analyzed in places where the particular factor is less prevalent. Once most people have that factor, however, it is much more difficult to study its influence, since it is difficult to find anyone with whom to compare.

“This study is consistent with the kind of data we used to see in China and Japan when abortion had a very low prevalence,” he said.  But in China, where abortion has become rampant, research is now showing a higher risk of breast cancer following abortion.

Dr. Brind said that the study’s raw data supports the conclusion about the abortion-breast cancer link.  But he criticized the paper about the study, which he said “has some errors in it which should have been corrected on peer review.”

Most significantly, he highlighted the researchers’ claim that a late age at first pregnancy strongly decreased the risk of breast cancer, which goes against all the other research over the last 50 years.  “This is not a valid finding,” he said, because the researchers “actually miscalculated their own raw data.”

Karen Malec, president of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer, said that the study shows that “women who abort forfeit the protective effect of breastfeeding.”

“The loss of that protective effect is incurred in addition to the effect of abortion leaving the breasts with more places for cancers to start.”

Malec said that given the lack of routine mammograms in Sri Lanka, “health professionals must focus on disease prevention,” which would involve publicizing the link between abortion and breast cancer.

“It is criminal that the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) has covered up this risk for over a half century,” she said.

However, she continued, “It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the NCI to keep its fingers and toes in the dike,” in large part because “many researchers in other parts of the world do not depend on the agency for grants.”

The Sri Lankan study is the fourth epidemiological study in the last 14 months to report an abortion-breast cancer link. The three other studies have come out of the U.S., China, and Turkey.

Louise Brinton, a NCI branch chief, served as co-author in the U.S. study in which she and her colleagues admitted that “…induced abortion and oral contraceptive use were associated with increased risk of breast cancer.” The authors cited a statistically significant 40% increased risk.

You can find the abstract for the Sri Lanka study here. And, you can see another related LifeSiteNews.com stories, “National Cancer Institute Researcher Admits Abortion Breast Cancer Link,” here.

If you are a woman who has had an abortion, this information means that you need to consider a couple of actions:

  • Learn everything you can about how your can significantly lower your risk of breast cancer by proper diet, exercise, and sleep,
  • Be sure to discuss breast cancer screening with our primary care physician, and
  • Strongly consider seeing a post-abortion counselor. You can find one through your nearest Crisis Pregnancy Center or by contacting CareNet here.

Here are some of my other posts on the topic:

Related web sites: