By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO, Aug 6 (Reuters) - Preschoolers preferred the taste of burgers and fries when they came in McDonald's wrappers over the same food in plain wrapping, U.S. researchers said, suggesting fast-food marketing reaches the very young.
"Overwhelmingly, kids chose the one that they perceived was from McDonald's," said obesity prevention expert Dr. Thomas Robinson of the Stanford University School of Medicine, whose work appears in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
While prior studies have looked at the impact of individual ads on kids, Robinson and colleagues set out to study the overall influence of a company's brand -- based on everything from advertising to toy premiums and word of mouth.
It comes as many food and restaurant companies face pressure to cut back on marketing to children as rates of obesity among that age group continue to climb.
Robinson and colleagues conducted a taste test with a total of 63 kids aged 3 to 5 who were enrolled in a Head Start preschool for low-income families.
They were offered five pairs of foods and asked if they tasted the same or to point to the one that tasted better.
The food -- taken from the same order -- was wrapped in either McDonald's packaging or unbranded packages in the same color and style.
In about 60 percent of the tastings, the kids preferred food in the McDonald's wrapper.
"They actually thought the food tasted better," Robinson said in a telephone interview.
EVEN 'MCCARROTS' PREFERRED
About 22 percent of the kids chose food in the plain wrappers while 18 percent said the food tasted the same or were unable to complete the experiment.
"It ranged from 48 percent who chose the hamburger up to over 70 percent who chose French fries as tasting better if they thought they were from McDonald's," he said.
"Even for baby carrots, kids said the carrots they thought were from McDonald's tasted better," Robinson said.
The same was true of milk.
He said the study supports efforts to ban or regulate advertising or marketing of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages directed to young children.
A McDonald's Corp. (MCD.N) spokesman said the company has been working to address the need for responsible marketing to kids and providing healthy food choices.
"McDonald's is only advertising Happy Meals with white meat McNuggets, fresh apple slices and low-fat milk, a right-sized meal of only 375 calories," said spokesman Walt Riker, in a statement e-mailed to Reuters.
"Our recent program with 'Shrek' was our biggest-ever promotion of fruits, vegetables and milk, another indication of our progressive approach to responsible marketing," he said.
The recent effort put the green ogre of the "Shrek" movies on a diet in a campaign that promoted healthier foods.
Robinson acknowledged that fast-food marketers have added some healthy foods to their menus, but he said the study should raise some alarms for parents.
"The majority of their marketing and reputation and brand is based on foods that are high in calories and fat and low in nutritional value," he said.