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Popeye encourages Thai children to eat fruit and veg, study

By Ben Bouckley , 09-Aug-2010
Last updated the 09-Aug-2010 at 14:20 GMT

Cartoon role models and direct experience of fruit and vegetables in a classroom setting may markedly improve consumption levels amongst children, according to a Thai study.

Published in Nutrition & Dietetics, the pilot study of 26 children aged four to five years-old found that watching the cartoon Popeye, stories, games, fruit and vegetable tasting parties and cooking classes increased intake substantially.

The study followed fears in Thailand about low fruit and vegetable consumption, with a 1995 National Dietary Survey showing that pre-school and school children consumed under one serving each of vegetables and fruit a day, 70% below World Health Organisation guidelines.

It also comes at a time when the UK food industry remains under fire for marketing unhealthy foods to children using cartoon characters, and supports the idea that companies could instead use such characters as positive role models to promote healthy eating.

Popeye first appeared onscreen in 1933, and was such an encouragement to children to eat spinach that Crystal City in Texas (where the vegetable was grown) installed a statue of the sailor, who is generally accepted as the saviour of the 1930s US spinach industry.

Reinforce positive attitudes

The study lasted eight weeks between July and September 2003 and recorded the varieties and amounts of fruit and vegetables that 13 boys and 13 girls from a randomly selected Bangkok public primary school ate both before and after.

Eleven activities undertaken included watching the cartoon Popeye, stories, games, songs, gardening and cooking activities that all promoted eating fruit and vegetables. These were found effective as behavioural cues inviting greater consumption via observation and imitation in a group context:

“The advantages of the food experience programme were that the students had more opportunity to learn, see, touch and taste a variety of fruit and vegetables,said the authors.

Before the study median amounts of fruit and vegetables consumed were 53g and 11g respectively. After the intervention, average vegetable intake increased to 23g – although still much less than one serving per meal, which the study sets at 70g. Vegetable types consumed rose from four to six.

However, although median fruit consumption rose from 53g per day to 77g, the frequency of different fruits consumed (seven) did not rise. The researchers attributed this to increased variety in fruit intake before the study.

Letters sent to parents encouraging them to serve fruit and vegetables also showed positive results. While four of the 26 children 'never' ate vegetables at home before, post-test data showed that only two fell into this category after; the number who ‘always’ ate them rose from 14 to 18.

The authors concluded: “Role models and social support for eating fruit and vegetables from family, teachers and peers are major factors in encouraging consumption in elementary school children.”

Nonetheless, more research was needed:“Further research with larger sample sizes in pre-school and school children, including a control group and longer-term follow-up, are required to assess the sustainability of improved fruit and vegetable eating behaviours.”

Cut cartoon baddies

A 2008 report by Which? called for big companies to regulate the use of third-party cartoon figures to market foods high in sugar, salt and fat. It pointed the finger at characters such as Tony the Tiger – used to market Kellogg’s Frosties that contain over 1/3 sugar – against the backdrop of the Health Survey for England 2006 which found that 31% of boys and 29% of girls were obese or overweight.

The capacity for children’s eating habits to be positively influenced by characters was shown in a 1997 UK study, when a University of Bangor team created the ‘Food Dudes’. 200 children were shown associated videos and marketing materials: agreement to eat fruit and vegetables rose by 100 per cent for some foods, and remained high six months later.

Source: Nutrition & Dietetics 2010; 67: 97-101

doi: 10.1111/j.1747-0080.2010.01426x

“Using food experience, multimedia and role models for promoting fruit and vegetable consumption in Bangkok kindergarten children.”

Authors: C.Sirikulchayanonta, K.Iedsee, P.Shuaytong, S.Srisorrachatr

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