Presentation Matters!

August 10, 2007

by Jean Saunders, HSC School Wellness Director

This week, CNN reported that preschoolers believe food presented in a McDonald’s wrapper tastes better than non-branded food. According to the article:

Anything made by McDonald’s tastes better, preschoolers said in a study that powerfully demonstrates how advertising can trick the taste buds of young children.   Even carrots, milk and apple juice tasted better to the kids when they were wrapped in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches. The study had youngsters sample identical McDonald’s foods in name-brand and unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test.

Chefs and home cooks alike know that we taste first with our eyes. If food looks appealing, we are likely to enjoy it more.

A quick review of the literature affirms this old adage:  I found hundreds of articles and papers about the relationship between visual cues and taste.

Many of these studies looked at how the color of a food can greatly affect the way we perceive its taste. Brightly colored foods frequently seem to taste better than bland-looking foods, even when the flavors are identical.

With this research in mind, the results of this taste test shouldn’t come as a surprise. Kids believe that food with the (colorful) McDonald’s logo on the wrapper looks more appealing and think it will taste better than food in a plain or bland wrapper.

On top of this, most kids believe that McDonald’s = Fun. Of course, McDonald’s spends billions of dollars reminding us (adults and kids alike) about the perceived connection between their brand and fun.

According to Advertising Age, McDonald’s ranked 16th in advertising spending among U.S. companies in 2006, at $1.75 billion. In the context of that advertising, it’s not much of a leap to see that food associated with fun tastes better to kids.

Besides the quite obvious and important discussions about food advertising to children that these findings raise, I think there is something else we can learn from the CNN report.

This is an excellent reminder to parents, food service directors and everyone who is working to encourage healthy eating among children that presentation, packaging, color and context are critical considerations.

Encouraging kids to make healthy food choices with the promise that “it’s good for you” is not enough. 

When given a choice, kids must believe that the healthy options look as familiar, fun, and appealing to them as the junk food options.