A new study presented at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies conference in San Diego, California, suggests that placement of "Green Smiley Faced" emoticons at healthy foods and awarding small prizes to children purchasing nutritious foods could be an alternative way to avoid poor food selection in school canteens, an identified cause of childhood obesity.

The research was conducted using two interventions at an inner city public school in Cincinnati, Ohio comprised of 297 students from kindergarten to sixth-grade.

On the first intervention, the researchers introduced a smiley face emoticons near the four healthiest foods in the cafeteria: plain white fat free milk, vegetables, fruits, and entrée with whole grains. After three months in the same academic year, in addition to emoticons, the students were given small prizes like mini beach balls, temporary tattoo or stickers if they chose "Power Plate," defined as a meal consisting of the four healthiest foods. The power plate selections were directly monitored by the scientists for the five month trial. Cash register receipts were used by the researchers to determine individual purchases of the healthiest foods.

Based on the results, plain white fat free milk sales increased by over 500 percent and chocolate milk selection decreased from 86.5 percent to 44.6 percent over the five-month period. It was also noted that vegetable selections and fruit selections increased at 62 percent and 20 percent respectively per student per day. Although no significant changes recorded for entrée with whole grains and total milk purchase, the power plate selection increased by 335 percent.

With the two successive interventions of smiley emoticons followed by incentive prizing, the researchers concluded that the technique was a low cost effective way in increasing student selection of healthy foods like vegetables, fruits and most especially plain white fat free milk in school cafeterias.

"It looks like we found a very promising, low-cost and effective way of improving the nutrition of elementary school children. This type of program may be a useful component in schools trying to improve the nutrition and health of their students," Robert Siegel, study author, MD, FAAP, medical director at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center said.

Childhood obesity, a condition where excess body fat negatively affects the health of a child, has been recognized as a serious public health concern. Schools have made focused efforts to reduce poor food selections of students in cafeterias.

It should be noted that attaching toy incentive prizes on kid's meals is a known strategy of fast food corporations to make lunch more fun.

Photo: US Department of Agriculture | Flickr

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