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Friday, 15 March, 2002, 12:33 GMT
Cartoon tempts children to eat healthily
The Food Dudes encourage children to eat healthily
A 21st century Popeye-style cartoon has been created to encourage children to eat their greens.

Characters such as "Food dude" superheroes and the villain "General Junk" have dramatically increased children's consumption of fruit and vegetables in trials.

The success of the project has prompted the Department of Health to pilot an experimental programme in about 20 schools.

It is linked to concerns that children are not eating a balanced diet and one where they eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables daily.


There's evidence that if you taste something enough times you learn to like the taste

Dr Katy Tapper, psychologist
Results of a MORI poll, released last November, showed as many as 200,000 children in England and Wales had eaten either no fruit or no vegetables in the previous seven days

The study, funded by the Cancer Research Campaign and the supermarket chain, Iceland, also found that, on average, children are eating less than 13 portions of fruit and vegetables a week.

Popeye the sailor, who acquires super-strength by eating spinach, had a huge impact on children's eating habits after first appearing in an American cartoon strip in 1929.

The new characters devised by psychologists at the University of Wales at Bangor, appear to possess similar powers of persuasion.

Four "food dudes" appear in a video featuring real actors and animation.

Each has a favourite vegetable - Charlie eats carrots, Tom favours tomatoes, Raz likes raspberries and Rocco has a penchant for broccoli.

Fruit is 'cool'

Just as spinach invigorates Popeye, fruit and vegetables give the four heroes the "life force" they need to save the world from "General Junk" and his army of vegetable-hating "junk punks".

Dr Katy Tapper, who led the research told the British Psychological Society's annual meeting in Blackpool, that research showed children significantly increased their consumption of fruit and vegetables during the programme.

She said: "The result showed an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption at lunchtime which was significant.

"There's evidence that if you taste something enough times you learn to like the taste.

"The intervention gets the children to repeatedly taste fruit and vegetables so they develop a liking for them.

"A lot of children who say they don't like broccoli haven't even tried it.

"The second way it works is by changing the culture within the school.

"It becomes a cool thing to eat fruit and vegetables, and this is reinforced for the children by their peers.

"They come to see themselves as 'fruit and vegetable eaters' and are guided by the concept."

Rewards

The message is reinforced by a range of "food dude" stickers, letters and rewards such as pencils and erasers, given to children who eat or are willing to taste fruit and vegetables.

Results show consistently, children significantly increase their consumption of fruit and vegetables and maintain the habit.

Dr Tapper said the video, shown in schools for just six minutes a day, worked hand in hand with the rewards.

Using just one or the other was not so effective.

In the latest study at a primary school in Brixton, south London, the amount of offered fruit children ate went up from 36% to 79% during the course of the programme.

Vegetable consumption went up from 44% to 66%.

About 1,000 children have taken part in trials over the past two-and-a-half years.

Two years ago, the government introduced a scheme to provide free fruit to 80,000 primary school children in over 500 schools.

The scheme is to be extended nationally by 2004.

See also:

01 Jun 00 | Health
Children 'eating themselves ill'
27 Apr 00 | Health
Parents fear for children's diet
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