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Study finds aesthetics in food packaging as important as brand names

New research by University of Calgary professor Charlene Elliott, PhD, has found that packaging aesthetics may play a stronger role than branding in influencing preschooler’s taste preferences. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho-University of Calgary-Riley Brandt

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New research by University of Calgary professor Charlene Elliott, PhD, has found that packaging aesthetics may play a stronger role than branding in influencing preschooler’s taste preferences. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho-University of Calgary-Riley Brandt

CALGARY - A University of Calgary study suggests wrapping food up in a pretty package is as likely to influence a child's food choice as a brand name like McDonald's

Prof. Charlene Elliott's study builds on one done by Stanford University a few years ago.

The Stanford study found that preschoolers thought foods wrapped in a McDonald’s wrapper tasted better than the identical food presented in a plain wrapper. Children in the study even preferred the taste of carrots wrapped in McDonald’s wrapping.

"It was a very provocative study," Elliott said. "It's hardly surprising that given the choice of something that was wrapped in something completely plain and something that was decorated, the preschoolers preferred the food in the decorated wrapping."

Elliott felt the Stanford study lacked depth, so she modified it.

"We redesigned the study to figure out if it was the brand that was influencing the taste preferences or was it actually the aesthetics of the packaging itself?"

In Elliott's study, 65 preschool-aged children were asked to choose between food pairs presented in various wrappings including Starbucks — a brand children might not be familiar with.

The children were asked to choose between McDonald's and plain white wrapping; McDonald's and colourful non-branded wrapping; and McDonald's and Starbucks wrapping.

"Not surprisingly preschoolers thought the food that was in the decorated wrappers tasted best compared to the plain ones even though it was identical," she said. "But it wasn't about brand preference ... it's more about the aesthetics."

An equal percentage of children preferred McDonald's burgers in Starbucks wrappers as they did McDonald's burgers in McDonald's wrappers.

For fries and carrots, the majority of children indicated that the samples tasted the same. Yet for those children who did indicate a preference, more children preferred the taste of fries and carrots in the Starbucks wrapping over McDonald's.

"So wrap it up in a pretty package," she said.

Elliott holds a Canada Research Chair in Food Marketing, Policy and Children's Health. Her results have been published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

But the owner of a Calgary daycare isn't sure that packaging is the primary factor in getting a child to eat.

"They tend to be picky, absolutely," said Marc St. Germain, who owns FunFlex Playcare. "That's why I try keep my menus as simple as possible. I'm not going to make a lentil soup knowing very well that the kids will just throw it away.

"I can make a lentil soup that looks really good on the menu, it looks good to the parents, but down the road I know they probably won't eat it no matter what the packaging."

St. Germain said his facility makes sure it provides selections from the groups in Canada's Food Guide, but believes it is familiarity with the food that is being offered that would trump colourful packaging.

Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter.

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