«IF IT’S HEALTHY AND YOU KNOW IT, DO YOU EAT? HEALTH PROMPTS REDUCE PRESCHOOLERS’ CONSUMPTION Michal Maimaran Northwestern University Ayelet ...»
Because taste is the focal dimension on which children make consumption decisions, they will also consume less of food items they judge to be less tasty. Thus, unlike adults, for whom emphasizing the health benefits may increase or decrease taste ratings and indirectly affect consumption, children ages three to five years old will likely decrease consumption and taste ratings when we shift attention to the instrumental, health benefits. We therefore predict the
H1: Emphasizing the health benefits of food items will be ineffective and can decrease current and planned consumption, compared to when no benefits or the taste benefits are
H2: Emphasizing the health benefits of food items will decrease taste ratings, compared to when no benefits or the taste benefits are emphasized.
To test these hypotheses, we collected data from preschoolers and parents of preschoolers across three studies. Parents reported what persuasive appeals they use when trying to convince their children to eat healthy and how effective these appeals are. This survey data provides us with initial evidence concerning how children respond to these appeals from the parents’ point of view. We also collected data from three- to five-year-old children in a local daycare. These data allow us to test more directly how health, taste, and no-frame appeals affect children’s actual consumption and taste ratings.
In particular, in the first study, we test Hypothesis 1 by asking parents of children ages three to five to report the frequency of serving vegetables, as well as the frequency of persuading their children to eat vegetables using health- and taste-based claims. We predict that whereas taste-based claims will increase consumption above and beyond merely serving vegetables, health-based claims will not. The second study tests the first hypothesis in an experimental setting, and predict that children ages three to five years old consume less and are less likely to choose for future consumption crackers that were framed as healthy, compared to tasty and neutral frames. The last study examines the second hypothesis, by exploring whether children ages three to four years old judge health-framed food as less tasty, which in turn reduces
As a first step, we sought to explore the persuasive appeals parents use when trying to convince their children to eat healthy, and how effective these appeals are in increasing children’s healthy food consumption. To that end, we asked parents of three- to five-year-old children to indicate one food item they try hardest to convince their children to eat. Focusing on this item (vegetables, as explained below), we then asked parents to report (a) how frequently they serve vegetables at meal time, and how frequently they try to persuade their children to eat vegetables by using (b) health-based claims and (c) taste-based claims. As our dependent variable, we asked parents how frequently their children eat vegetables.
Method Eighty-nine parents of children at the relevant age group (3-5 years old) were recruited through Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) and completed an online survey (mean parent age = 32; 54% female; 75% Caucasian, 11% African-American, 6% Asian-American and 6% Hispanic; 85% with some college education or more; 67% employed part-time or full-time). The surveyed parents listed one food item that they often try to convince their children to eat by saying it is healthy and one food item that they try to convince their children to eat by saying it is yummy. For both questions, the majority of parents listed vegetables as their answer (e.g., corn, spinach, carrots, cauliflower). Specifically, for the “convince by saying healthy” question, 75%
for the “convince by saying yummy” question, 62.5% listed vegetables and 37.5% listed other items as above (X2(1) = 5.5, p.05).
Participants further rated their agreement with several statements regarding their children’s consumption of vegetables (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree): (a) the frequency of serving vegetables: “During mealtime, I often serve vegetables;” (b) health-based persuasion: “I often tell my child that vegetables are healthy” and “I often tell my child that vegetables will make you strong;” and (c) taste-based persuasion: “I often tell my child that vegetables are yummy” and “I often tell my child that vegetables are fun.” As a measure of consumption, they rated how often their children eat vegetables.
To understand the relative effectiveness of the different persuasion techniques on consumption, we first created “health-based” and “taste-based” indices by averaging the two health-based persuasion items (r =.57, p.005) and the two taste-based persuasion items (r =.28, p.01), respectively; we get similar results when using each of these variables separately.
We then regressed the dependent measure, consumption, on four variables: frequency of serving vegetables, health-based index, taste-based index, and what item, vegetables (coded as 1) or other (coded as 0), parents report they try to convince their child to eat by telling their child it is healthy.
We find the strongest predictor of vegetable consumption is merely serving them during mealtime (=.48, t = 4.65, p.005), followed by using taste claims (=.21, t = 2.31, p.05).
serving the vegetables and using taste-based claims (p.2). Thus, even though parents report using health claims more frequently (M healthy and strong = 6.25, SD =.98) than taste claims (M yummy = 5.22, SD = 1.2; t(88) = 7.23, p.001), these health claims do not increase vegetables’ and fun consumption above and beyond merely serving them.
We additionally find that the effect of food type (vegetables vs. others) that parents convince their children to eat by saying it is healthy is negative, and marginally predicts vegetables consumption (= -.164, t = -1.87, p =.065). This finding suggests that parents who report trying to convince their children to eat more vegetables by saying they are healthy report their children also eat fewer vegetables than children whose parents convince them to eat other food items by telling them these are healthy. Of course, given the correlational nature of this study, it could be that because these children consume fewer vegetables, parents may indeed need to convince them to eat vegetables more often.
To summarize, even though parents frequently use health claims when trying to convince their children to eat more vegetables, these claims do not increase vegetables’ consumption above and beyond serving them and using taste claims. A major limitation of this study is that it allows us to make conclusions only about correlations among variables and not about causality links among variables. To overcome the correlation-based nature of this study and to test the reasons health claims fail and may even backfire, we conducted two experimental studies that test whether framing food as healthy (vs. tasty or no frame) undermines preschoolers’ taste evaluations and actual present and planned consumption.
This study tests our hypothesis that emphasizing the health benefits of otherwise desirable food items decreases present and planned consumption. Because we found that children are frequently exposed to persuasion appeals involving consumption of vegetables, we used a different type of food here: Wheat Thins crackers. These crackers fit our research, because we needed a product we could truthfully represent and that could be perceived as both healthy and tasty, and for which we could accurately measure consumption. A pretest with eight mothers of children in the relevant age group confirmed these moms thought their children would like the Wheat Thins crackers, (M = 5.78, SD = 1.2, t (8) = 4.44, p.01) and would think these crackers were healthy (M = 5.13, SD = 0.83, t (8) = 3.81, p.01) and tasty (M = 5.78, SD = 0.97, t (8) = 5.48, p.01). Significance tests are based on a one-sample t-test against the midpoint, 4, on a 7point scale (1=not at all, 7=very much).
Preschoolers in our main study consumed the Wheat Thins crackers twice, approximately two weeks apart: once after receiving a marketing pitch regarding the crackers’ health benefits, taste benefits, or no pitch (manipulated between subjects), and a second time after receiving no information about the crackers. The marketing pitch about the crackers was embedded in a story the experimenter told the children. We chose to use story telling as the experimental procedure because listening to a story in the classroom is a routine activity for children in this day care, and familiarity with the situation is critical for research with children (e.g., Peracchio 1990). We predicted the health message in the first measurement would decrease present and planned consumption compared with the taste and control messages and compared with the second measurement (no health information).
Sixty-six children (age range: 4.5-5.5 years, 63% female) completed the experiment in one of three marketing-pitch conditions: healthy versus yummy versus control, manipulated between subjects. Each participant completed the study individually in a designated part of the classroom. In the “healthy” and “yummy” conditions, the experimenter read the children a story about Tara, who ate Wheat Thins crackers before going to play (see figure 1). Depending on the condition, different benefits were emphasized. In particular, in the “healthy” condition, the story emphasized the crackers’ health benefits (the story read, “Tara felt strong and healthy, and she had all the energy…”), as did the experimenter, who pointed to her own arm muscles when reading that sentence. To verify the child understood the story, the experimenter asked after reading it, “Did you know that Wheat Thins crackers are good for your health?” In the “yummy” condition, the story emphasized the crackers’ taste benefits (“Tara thought the crackers were yummy, and she was happy…”), as did the experimenter, who pointed to her own stomach when reading that sentence. As in the “healthy” condition, the experimenter asked after reading the story, “Did you know that Wheat Thins crackers are yummy?” Both appeals (healthy and yummy) were emotionally equivalent and presented similar pictures of a smiling girl. No story was used in the control condition.
In all conditions, the experimenter then offered the child the chance to eat Wheat Thins crackers. To minimize interaction between the experimenter and the child during eating, the
bowl with 15 crackers sat. The number of crackers the child ate served as our dependent variable to measure consumption.
When the children finished eating, they moved back to the main experiment table to choose between a bag of Wheat Thins crackers and a bag of Ritz crackers to take home. The choice of crackers served as our dependent variable to measure planned consumption. The experimenter then thanked participants, gave them a small thank-you gift and the crackers they chose, and had them return to class activities.
To explore whether the effect of the health message is caused by attention to health benefits (as we predicted) versus knowledge about these benefits, we approached participants in the “healthy” and “yummy” conditions again one to three weeks after they had completed the above procedure. These children then completed the control-condition procedure (i.e., eating crackers and post-eating choice). As a recall measure, the experimenter asked participants at the end of the session, “A few weeks ago I read you a story about Tara and these crackers. Do you remember what Tara thought about these crackers?,” and recorded the open-ended responses. As in the first part, the experimenter then thanked the children and gave them a small thank-you gift and the crackers they chose.
Results and Discussion Seven children, roughly equally distributed across conditions, did not want to eat at all (e.g., one had an upset stomach, another wanted to leave), and two children (from the “yummy” condition) were highly distracted, resulting in a valid sample of 57 children. Including everyone
Consumption: As predicted, children in the “healthy” condition ate fewer crackers than children in the “yummy” and “control” conditions (Mhealthy = 3.1, SD = 3.25; Myummy = 7.2, SD = 6.13; Mcontrol = 9.07, SD = 5.6, F(2, 54) = 6.94, p.01). Planned contrasts revealed a significant difference between the “healthy” and “control” conditions (t(54) = 3.7, p.005) and between the “healthy” and “yummy” conditions (t(54) = 2.67, p.05), but not between the “yummy” and “control” conditions (t 1). This finding supports our consumption hypothesis that health pitch reduced consumption among young children.
Thirty-five of the participants in the “healthy” and “yummy” conditions participated in the second session (the remaining 7 were not in the classroom at the time the second session was conducted). Supporting our prediction, we found an interaction between the message and time of measurement (F(1,33) = 8.27, p.01; figure 2). Children who originally were in the “healthy” condition increased their consumption from t1, i.e., immediately after the appeal (M = 3.1) to t2, i.e., 2 weeks after the appeal (M = 7.31; t(16) = 3.95, p.005), whereas consumption of those originally in the “yummy” condition did not change (t 1). Moreover, at t2, no differences in consumption existed between participants who originally were in the “healthy” and “yummy” conditions (7.31 vs. 7.86; t 1).
Recall: In the second measurement, we coded children’s responses to the recall question into three categories: “strong/healthy,” “yummy/tasty/good,” and “nothing/other” (whenever the child did not remember, or gave an unrelated answer, e.g., “yes”). About half (53% of those originally in the “healthy” condition and 47% in the “yummy” condition) remembered the