01/24/2014 04:58 EST | Updated 01/24/2014 04:59 EST

Children Prefer Starbucks Over McDonald's But Preschooler Would Rather Have Colourful Packaging

If you want your preschooler to eat his carrots, package them in a Starbucks wrapper.

In a study conducted recently by the University of Calgary, and now published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, 65 children were asked which food tasted better, those packaged in McDonald's wrapping, Starbucks wrapping, or those wrapped in bright, colourful packaging.

All the preschoolers were served the same thing – McDonald's burgers, chicken nuggets and fries, as well as carrots – theonly difference was the packaging.

It seems, children think food in Starbucks packaging tastes better than McDonald's food in McDonald's wrapping.

U of C professor Charlene Elliott found that when choosing between McDonald's burgers packaged in a McDonalds wrapper or a McDonald's burger packaged in a Starbucks wrappers, the preschoolers were equally divided in the preference.

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"For the chicken nuggets, 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."

What may be even more surprising is that when the same children were given the choice between identical carrots - one set packaged in McDonald's wrapping, the other in very colourful packaging - the children preferred the carrots in the colourful wrapping, the study found.

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"The point was to see whether packaging aesthetics influences children's taste preferences as much as the branding," explains Elliott, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Food Marketing, Policy and Children's Health.

"By asking preschoolers to also select between McDonald's and an adult-oriented brand like Starbucks, we could make some preliminary observations about the degree to which the McDonald's brand is actually driving the preschoolers' selections."

The results point to the fact that appearance is more important than branding to children when determining how much they like a particular food item, said Elliot.

A highly publicized study conducted a few years ago showed that when asked to pick which food tasted better, children presented with identical food items – one in McDonald's wrapping, the other in a plain wrapper – the kids chose the items in the McDonalds wrapping.

"Appearance, rather than branding, appears to influence children's taste preferences," she said.

"These findings should not, of course, be used to argue against recommendations for limiting the commercial promotion of foods to children.

"What our findings suggest is the need to also focus attention on the important role of packaging in directing children's food preferences."

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