The report, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, was based on five studies with children between the ages of three and five. In all of the studies, the children were read a picture book story about a girl who ate a snack of crackers or carrots.
Depending on the experiment, the story either did or did not state the benefits of the snack, which were making the girl strong or helping her to learn how to count.
The children were then given the opportunity to eat the food featured in the story and the authors measured how much they ate.
The children ate more when they did not receive any message about the foods making them strong or helping them learn how to count.
"We predicted that when food is presented to children as making them strong or as a tool to achieve a goal such as learning how to read or count, they would conclude the food is not as tasty and therefore consume less of it," wrote authors Michal Maimaran of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
She said young children who have no pre-existing associations (e.g., eating carrots and knowing how to read) were chosen, as older children may have pre-existing associations between healthy food and less tasty food.
Brands marketing food items to parents and children would be advised, based on these results to de-emphasize the benefits of healthy food and focus more on the positive experience of eating the food, the authors suggested.
The results may also help to empower policy makers and medical institutions looking to combat childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes.
“Parents and caregivers who are struggling to get children to eat healthier may be better off simply serving the food without saying anything about it, or (if credible) emphasizing how yummy the food actually is,” the authors conclude.
However, marketing particular food’s potential health benefits may still have a positive impact on consumption on children, by influencing caregivers to purchase and serve it, they add.
Source: Journal of Consumer Research
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1086/677224
"If It's Useful and You Know It, Do You Eat? Preschoolers Refrain from Instrumental Food."
Authors: Michal Maimaran and Ayelet Fishbach.