Cornell University's David Just, a behavioral economist, wondered along with his colleagues whether the use of life-sized vegetable puppet superheroes could make kids change the way they eat. To find out, the scientists joined with Super Sprowtz, a nonprofit, to create Sammy Spinach, Oliver Onion, Colby Carrot and many more cartoon characters that take the form of vegetables.
NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee writes that the live puppet performances across the country and the short video productions starring the veggie puppets and celebrities like Shaquille O'Neal have been attempting to get children to feel differently about eating their greens.
One video has the characters singing a Beyonce' song with adjusted words about vegetables.
The study included two schools that had their salad bars decorated with large banners covered with the veggie characters. Three other schools had veggie bars decorated with the same banner and added a screen with the videos running on a loop. Two additional schools were used as control groups and had neither the videos nor the banners. The schools were located in large urban school districts.
In the schools that had only the pennant, students ate almost twice as many vegetable servings than those in the control schools. In schools with the banner and the videos, students put three times as many veggie portions on their lunch plates.
The study included students from K through fifth grade. Andrew Hanks, the principal author of the study and a researcher at Ohio State University's Food Innovation Center, said:
"These are animated characters, and kids at that age like these kinds of things."
This project, says Hanks, resulted from the idea that the food industry has long used cartoon characters to sell high-calorie, fatty, and sodium- and sugar-filled food to young people. The researchers saw no reason for it not to also work for healthy food marketing.
Christina Economos, a childhood nutrition researcher at Tufts University, says there will still need to be nutrition education to supplement the fun-filled marketing tools.
The study was published last week in the journal Pediatrics.
Michelle Obama began the Let's Move initiative in 2010 with the intention of improving the diets of US kids. Mrs. Obama was included in the marketing campaign that first used the Super Sprowtz superhero gang that included by Brian Broccoli, Suzy Sweetpea, Miki Mushroom and others.
Pulse Headline's Elizabeth De Faria reports that before the banners and videos were tested in the participating schools, only 10% of students availed themselves of vegetable servings. After the campaign, 34% of students were eating from the healthy food group.
The team found that the banner was the most efficient at influencing young ones to eat from the salad bar. The videos worked well with the pennant, but the televisions' small screens and the need for electricity made the banners the best choice for changing kids' eating habits.
There are other ways to coax children into eating their vegetables. Websites abound with recipes that include veggies in forms that children will find appealing, according to ParentHerald's Elizabeth Anderson. The recipes include baked cauliflower mac and cheese and cheese and squash pizza, along with zucchini lasagna and cauliflower mashed potatoes.
More information about the superheroes can be found on the Super Sprowtz website, such as the character's personality traits, their catch phrases, and their hobbies. The site also sells merchandise and offers nutrition advice to parents.