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Vegetable Superheroes May Help Your Kids Eat More Plants

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Marketing through cartoon characters is usually seen in the junk food aisle, but what if this same technique was used to encourage children to choose fresh produce? 

Food companies have used creative marketing techniques to target children for years—and with good results. The colorful illustrations and pops of recognizable faces are an attractive element on so many foods, from cereal to soda. Calls from legislators and healthy eating advocates aim to encourage companies to remove those characters. So far, they've fallen on deaf ears. But the alluring nature of these marketing tactics might actually encourage children to eat more plants, according to a new study.

A study from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs found that splashy marketing techniques may help convince children to eat more fruits and vegetables. The study, which was published in Pediatrics, analyzed various "marketing" techniques at 10 different elementary schools. Each school was assigned to one of four groups. The first school group received a vinyl banner with vegetable "characters" fastened around the salad bar. The second group was shown cartoons with vegetable characters delivering healthy-eating messages. The third group received both the vinyl banner and the television segments. The final group was a control group, with no marketing techniques.

At the schools with the vinyl banners alone, 90.5% more students took vegetables from the salad bar. A staggering 239.2% more students took from the salad bar when they were exposed to both the television segment and the banner at the salad bar.

"Evidence from this study highlights the positive impact of branded media on children’s vegetable selection in the school cafeteria," the researchers wrote in their study conclusion.

As parents and nutrition experts look for smarter ways to encourage children to eat more fruits and vegetables, turning to these types of marketing may prove very helpful. In fact, a bit of this strategy is already seen in the grocery store. Some fruit companies have begun marketing their products with cartoon versions of sunshine, fruit, and vegetables. These findings help underline the need for additional nutrition campaigns in schools, as well as the funding to make them happen. And at home, it seems now is a good time to turn plain old steamed broccoli into Captain Broccoli and His Band of Fierce Brussels Sprouts.