Special edition: Kids' Food

How characters can help children eat healthily

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

From Disney to Tony the Tiger, consumer groups have been campaigning hard to break the links between childhood icons and unhealthy foods. But furry friends and super-heroes are now putting in more of an appearance on healthy products.

There is no denying that children are attracted to foods in colourful packages, and colourful characters they recognise or can identify can lead to pestering that would have even the most patient parent cave in.

In the UK Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcasting Committee on Advertising Practice (BCAP) that control the use of third party, licensed cartoon characters, such as Shrek, to market foods high in fat, sugar and salt to younger children.

But that hasn’t brought and end to the long tradition of using characters to sell food. Rather, there is huge scope for brands to ally themselves with the values of well-known characters, and to leverage them to attract young consumers to more healthy offerings.

One company with character association at its heart is UK-based Peter Rabbit (PR) Organics, which sells a range of fruit juices and purees, pasta, sauces, and fruit-sweetened cookies represented by the menagerie dreamed up by author Beatrix Potter. All products in the range are free from added sugar and salt, and none contain undeclared processing aids, artificial colours, flavours or preservatives.

Ben Ford, managing director of PR Organics, told FoodNavigator.com that Peter Rabbit is very trusted. “Everyone is aware of him,” ​he said, adding that there are strong links to nature, to Mr MacGregor’s garden, and to fresh fruits and vegetables. What is more, Beatrix Potter herself had strong links to the environment and healthy living.

In the last ten years he has seen more and more products entering the market aimed at children; some, but not all, use character marketing.

Even for PR Organics, there has been a shift in the kinds of foods Peter Rabbit is associated with. Ford explained that the bunny used to be on a chocolate bar, but it decided to discontinue it because it did not fit with the healthy, trusted image.

PR Organics’ products are aimed at children aged 6 months to 6 years in the UK. But interestingly, its products are not considered ‘just for kids’ in all markets. In the US, for example, where the company started distributing last year, they are eaten by adults too – “everyone from business travellers to snowboarders”.​ There, Peter Rabbit is seen as a very English personality.

“It is interesting what Peter Rabbit means in different places. In Japan there is an amazing fondness,”​ said Ford.


The capacity for children’s eating habits to be swayed by association with characters was researched in 1997, when a team from the University of Bangor in Wales invented the Food Dudes. A group of 200 children were shown videos and other marketing materials featuring the characters, who invited them to eat fruit and vegetables in order to help in the fight against the Junk Food Junta.

The children were rewarded with t-shirts, caps, stickers and ultimately a family outing. But the results in terms of dietary change were astounding. The researchers reported that agreement to eat was increased to 100 per cent for some fruits and vegetables, and remained high even six months after the Food Dudes had disappeared from their lives.

The findings were published in the British Food Journal in 1998 (DOI: 10.1108/00070709810207496).

Own brand characters

A 2008 report from consumer group Which? found that there have been some moves towards using brand-owed characters on healthier products, such as use of the Honey Monster on Honey Meltz. But the same cuddly creature also appears on Sugar Puffs and honey Waffles, which are laden with sugar.

The report, called The cartoon villains are still getting away with it​, it found firms were still using company-owned characters on unhealthy products. While it was not calling for colourful characters to be removed from supermarket shelves, it does want to see them gracing

Miranda Watson, social policy campaign manager at Which? is on the speaker line-up at a conference organised by FoodNavigator’s sister publication Food Manufacture next month, Food for Kids.

Food for Kids takes place on 9th March 2010 at America Square Conference Centre in London. For more information, please click here​ .


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