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Can Elmo make children like apples?
For children who turn up their noses at fruits and vegetables, slapping a cartoon face on a healthy snack may make those choices more appealing, according to a US study.
Researchers, whose findings appeared in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, discovered that when elementary school students were offered apples and cookies with lunch, children were more likely to opt for an apple when it was branded with a cartoon sticker - such as one of the "Sesame Street" character Elmo.
"If we're trying to promote healthier foods, we need to be as smart as the companies that are selling the less-healthy foods," said David Just, co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program, who worked on the study.
Noting that cartoon characters and flashy advertising often don cookie and candy packaging, he added, "The message should be: fight fire with fire."
Just and his colleagues offered cookies and apples to 208 eight- to 11-year-olds at suburban and rural schools every day at lunch for a week. Children were allowed to choose an apple, a cookie or both, along with their normal meal.
Some 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 cartoon character.
When the snacks weren't specially marked, 91 percent of children took a cookie and just under one-quarter took an apple.
But when an Elmo sticker was slapped on the apples, 37 percent of children took fruit, the researchers reported.
Stickers on cookies didn't affect children's choice of the sweet snack.
"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 and did not take part in the study.
Kid-friendly characters used for this marketing "aren't popping up on the carrots and apples as much as they are on a wide range of foods that aren't good for kids," she added.
Using stickers on fruits and vegetables could be one cheap option to help improve students' diets, she said, as well as something parents can try at home.
"It's not a bad idea to create these positive associations, especially if you're struggling to get kids to eat healthy foods," she added.