NEW YORK - For youngsters who turn up their noses at fruits and vegetables, slapping a cartoon face on a healthy snack could make those choices more appealing, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that when elementary school students were offered apples and cookies with lunch, kids were more likely to opt for an apple when it was branded with an Elmo sticker.
One researcher not involved in the new study said parents and school administrators can take a lesson from food companies: Elmo, Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob help sell snacks, healthy or unhealthy.
"There are so many foods that are of poor nutritional quality and they are being marketed to children," said Christina Roberto, who studies food choices at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
Kid-friendly characters used for marketing "aren't popping up on the carrots and apples as much as they are on a wide range of foods that aren't so good for kids," Roberto told Reuters Health.
Those cartoon characters and other flashy advertising often don cookie and candy packaging, said David Just, co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs in Ithaca, New York.
For the new study, Just and his colleagues did the apple and cookie experiment with 208 eight- to 11-year-olds at suburban and rural schools every day at lunch for a week. Kids were allowed to choose an apple, a cookie or both snacks along with their normal meal.
Some of those days, the snacks were offered without cartoon stickers or other branding. On other days, either the cookie or the apple was branded with a familiar kids' character.
When the snacks weren't specially marked, 91% of kids took a cookie and just under one-quarter took an apple.
Putting an Elmo sticker on the apples led 37% of kids to take fruit, the researchers reported this week in a letter to the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
Stickers on cookies didn't affect kids' choice of the sweet snack - probably because the youngsters already knew they tasted good, according to Just.
Roberto said some experts want branding off of kids' foods altogether, but others are willing to experiment with marketing strategies to encourage kids to make healthier choices.
Just advocated for the latter strategy.
"If we're trying to promote healthier foods, we need to be as smart as the companies that are selling the less-healthy foods," he told Reuters Health. "The message should be: fight fire with fire."
Fire, in this case, being Elmo and other friendly faces, of course.
Using stickers on fruits and vegetables could be one cheap option to help improve students' diets, Roberto said, as well as something parents can try at home.
"It's not a bad idea to create those positive associations," Roberto said, "especially if you're struggling to get kids to eat healthy foods."
Just added that parents can use fun names to encourage little kids especially to see fruits and vegetables as cool, such as "X-ray vision carrots" and "power peas."