If I were to give you two samples of carrots, one in a plain wrapper, one in packaging from McDonald's, which would taste better? According to a new study, if you were a preschooler, you'd pick Micky D's.
The study, reported on by the Associated Press, took 63 3-to-5-year-olds from low-income families and gave them samples of French fries, hamburgers and chicken nuggets, plus store-bought carrots, milk and juice. Some of the samples had plain packaging; some had McDonald's wrappers. The kids were then asked which ones tasted better. The result? Fewer than a quarter of the kids said that both samples of the food tasted the same. For every food but the hamburgers, McDonald's came out markedly ahead.
The study seems particularly timely given the debate on whether junk food advertisements aimed toward kids should be regulated (click here for background from a congressional hearing last month). After all, if McDonald's has done such a successful job of marketing its products that its wrappers themselves have an effect on toddlers, it doesn't seem likely that the next generation of Americans is going to lower its consumption of French fries and other fast foods.
I do wonder, though, whether it makes sense to spend too much time castigating food companies for successful marketing techniques -- after all, attracting customers is the entire point of marketing, and having a successful business is not inherently a bad thing for society. The problem is the types of food they're selling. In other words, if McDonald's were an organic cafe, we'd be hearing fewer complaints. (Following that line of logic, perhaps it's a good thing that wrapping carrot sticks in the golden arches symbol makes kids like them more -- maybe McDonald's should launch a new Brussels sprouts Happy Meal.)
I'll be interested to see how all this shakes out -- advertising clearly affects kids' food choices as much as if not more so than adults'. The real solution may lie in figuring out ways to make healthy choices profitable and appealing, so that companies want to produce them, and consumers want to eat them. That will certainly be difficult, given that many Americans are always going to pick French fries over carrot sticks. But it's an effort worth supporting.