Objective: To examine the effects of cumulative, real-world marketing and brand exposures on young children by testing the influence of branding from a heavily marketed source on taste preferences.
Design: Experimental study. Children tasted 5 pairs of identical foods and beverages in packaging from McDonald's and matched but unbranded packaging and were asked to indicate if they tasted the same or if one tasted better.
Setting: Preschools for low-income children.
Participants: Sixty-three children (mean +/- SD age, 4.6 +/- 0.5 years; range, 3.5-5.4 years).
Main exposure: Branding of fast foods.
Outcome measures: A summary total taste preference score (ranging from -1 for the unbranded samples to 0 for no preference and +1 for McDonald's branded samples) was used to test the null hypothesis that children would express no preference.
Results: The mean +/- SD total taste preference score across all food comparisons was 0.37 +/- 0.45 (median, 0.20; interquartile range, 0.00-0.80) and significantly greater than zero (P<.001), indicating that children preferred the tastes of foods and drinks if they thought they were from McDonald's. Moderator analysis found significantly greater effects of branding among children with more television sets in their homes and children who ate food from McDonald's more often.
Conclusion: Branding of foods and beverages influences young children's taste perceptions. The findings are consistent with recommendations to regulate marketing to young children and also suggest that branding may be a useful strategy for improving young children's eating behaviors.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00185536.