Fast-food ads hold sway over kids’ choices

From carrots to chicken nuggets, San Mateo County preschoolers say food tastes better if it comes from McDonald’s, according to a Stanford University study released Monday that reveals the extent to which marketing can manipulate young palates.

The study, published in August’s Archivesof Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, is expected to have national implications in the debate over advertising restrictions. But the study’s subjects were decidedly local — 63 low-income children from San Mateo County Head Start centers.

Before children can read, they can clearly identify the signature golden arches logo and experience a strong preference for fare from the fast-food giant, the study found. The 3-to 5-year-old kids who participated in the study sampled identical McDonald’s fare in both plain wrappers and company packaging. The foods wrapped in logos nearly always won the taste test, the study found.

Healthy foods, such as carrots, milk and juice, were also perceived as tastier if children thought they came from McDonald’s, leading researchers to theorize that branding may be an effective strategy in the fight against childhood obesity.

Dr. Tom Robinson, one of the study’s authors, said he expected the company’s extensive advertising to influence children’s preferences, but not taste buds.

“It turns out it was more than altering their preferences — it actually changed how the food tasted to them,” he said.

San Mateo County health officer Dr. Scott Morrow says kids’ preference for fast food is contributing to a health crisis.

“We have a serious problem with burgeoning rates of childhood obesity and some of it is related to marketing to kids,” Morrow said.

San Mateo County’s 2006 report, “Blueprint to Reduce Childhood Obesity,” found that a quarter of the county’s children were overweight or obese. The national rate hovers at around 18 percent, according to the 2003-04 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Today’s study results come less than a month after 11 major food and drink giants, including McDonald’s, pledged to curb advertising of unhealthy food to kids under age 12.

San Bruno mom Janice Monahan, having lunch with her 3-year-old son, Collin, at a Millbrae McDonald’s on Monday, said she sometimes worries about the power of fast-food advertising. Collin quickly recognizes McDonald’s when he sees it on television, and pleads to stop when they drive past the fast-food chain.

“From the Happy Meal toys to the packaging, everything is really geared toward the kids,” Monahan said. “We try not to make it more than a once-a-week thing.”

tbarak@examiner.com


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