Yanna Lee

Kids may not be able to keep their hands out of the cookie jar, even if they know the treat is bad for them, according to a new study.

Research released by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut found that children can accurately assess food products’ healthfulness, but often choose to ignore that information, instead making selections based on flavor. Researchers created a virtual grocery store for children aged seven to 12 to use. The store included both healthy and unhealthy items, and children were asked to rate the health benefits of each food item before putting it into their cart. Although children accurately rated the healthfulness of each item, the biggest factor in their selections was perceived tastiness of product.

“It’s a common misperception that kids are eating unhealthy foods, and that if they knew what was healthy, they would choose healthier things,” Jennifer Harris, one of the study authors and researcher at the Rudd Center, said. “What this study really shows is that they know what’s healthy and what’s unhealthy, and that this doesn’t have any effect at all on what food they choose.”

Researchers randomly divided 61 children into three groups. The first group was exposed to advertisements for unhealthy products, the second to advertisements for healthy products and the third — the control group — exposed to no advertisements. Children were asked to rate the healthfulness of foods before making their selections, but completed the exercise without the direct supervision of adults.

According to Amy Heard, a Loyola graduate student in psychology and one of the study authors, this procedure eliminated the need for children to make the “right” choices to appease grown-ups, more accurately reflecting what children would choose in real life.

“They could put anything in their cart,” Heard said.

Researchers then ran statistical analyses to disentangle the relationships between perceived taste, healthfulness and the presence of promotional advertisements.

For example, the study suggests a different role for advertising in improving children’s health choices. Heard said the group of children exposed to promotions for healthy foods rated those healthy foods tastier, making them more likely to select those products. Children within the selected age range are generally able to understand the persuasive intent of advertising, but are not yet able to defend themselves against it, Heard noted.

Researchers also emphasized the importance of ensuring that kids have access to healthier foods. Heard said that children often need to be exposed to a food multiple times before they perceive it as tasty. Junk food, on the other hand, is designed to be extremely palatable, incorporating large amounts of fat, salt and sugar to create products that appeal to a majority of people, she said.

Heard also noted that the online simulated grocery store creation can be used in future studies and open doors to better understanding kids’ food choices.

According to some studies, nearly 40 percent of children’s daily calories come from solid fat and added sugars.

The Rudd Center left Yale in January 2015.