We know the marketing stunts when we see them in the cereals, biscuits, and cakes sections of the supermarket: Colourful packaging placed directly at eye level and with tempting words on it, telling us how this breakfast cereal is especially healthy or delicious.
We also know that sugary and strongly processed products are not the healthy choice, but the nice packaging can tempt us to buy the product anyway. The message is very clear: Look at me! I’m delicious! Buy me!
But do we react the same way when it comes to healthy food? We do not yet clearly know.
Consequently, a team of scientists from the University of Copenhagen and Université Paris-Sud decided to examine what happens when children are presented to cucumbers in different packaging.
The results are now published in the journal Food Quality and Preference. Overall, they show that what is most important for children is knowing and liking the food they are being exposed to. Secondary to that is the packaging of the food.
”The fact that knowing the vegetables is very important to the children, supports how crucial it is for parents to expose their children to many different vegetables,” Annemarie Olsen, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and expert in children’s food choices, says.
What difference will the packaging do?
Annemarie Olsen and the three other scientists completed a cross-cultural study with 84 Danish and 132 Indonesian children aged 8 to 11. The children were presented to different packaging and plates with cucumber sticks which they could judge and eat. The scientists then analysed how the children’s choices were affected by the red, white or blue colour on the packaging and on the plate together with product specifications. On the packaging it said either that the cucumber inside “tastes good”, is “super healthy” or nothing was put on the packaging.
Examples of the plates the children had to choose from. Photo: Stephanie Angka
The results showed that the children’s own experiences with cucumber outdid the colour of the plates and the packaging and product specifications. This is consistent to earlier research about children’s food choices and preferences which indicates that children in general eat what they like – and what they like is what they know.
In other words: You cannot make children change their food choices by wrapping the food in colourful packaging with a “taste delicious”-text on it. And this came as a surprise to the scientists, Annemarie Olsen tells.
“Most parents recognize that many food products meant for children often have very colourful packaging. It surprised us to see that neither the plates nor the packaging had any significant effect on the children’s choices and how much the children ate during the experiment. We also had the assumption that the children would value the products with specifications about taste or health more than what turned out to be the case,” she explains.
Children choose the colour they like the most
Several earlier studies have shown that there is a potential in the packaging if you want to influence children’s desire to eat more fruit and vegetables. Among others, a study with Portuguese children showed that their appetite for apples increased significantly when the apples were cut and wrapped in packaging normally used for fast food.
Another study with Belgian children showed that the children ate more fruit when the packaging had famous characters from cartoons and movies on it.
But in this study the packaging had no effect on the children’s appetite for cucumber. On the other hand, the children’s judgement of the packaging – if they found it boring or cool – was affected by what colour they liked the most. The majority of the children from both countries mentioned blue as their favourite colour and white as the least exciting colour.
The colour of the plates (blue, red or white) did not have any effect on how many cucumber-sticks the children ate. This contradicts other studies, including a Danish study made in cooperation with Taste for Life, which shows that colours can affect the way food is experienced.
Because of this, Annemarie Olsen and her colleagues recommend that more research about how packaging, surroundings and other circumstances affect children’s and adults’ taste experiences, preferences and food choices should be conducted.