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Aly Walansky
June 22, 2017

Even as we are still be figuring out when it’s appropriate to use “love” or “like” on Facebook, food researchers are starting to use these symbols to help children make better food choices.

In a recent study published in the medical journal Appetite, researchers found that “emo-labeling” shelves helped kids to make healthier food choices.

While most children do not understand the concepts of fat and sugar, they do understand emotional expressions.  The study explored that, asking kids ranging from kindergarten through six grade to interpret various emojis. These included happy face (healthy), sad face (unhealthy). Researchers then walked the kids through a room set up to look like a traditional grocery store aisle, where food choices were emo-labeled using these expressions.  The healthier snacks would have smiley faces (fruit and vegetables) and the unhealthy options, like sweets and chips, would have a frowning face. Following these guidelines, 83% of the children chose healthier option.

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Could something as simple as using an emoji play such a big role in fighting childhood obesity? “Smiley and frowny faces are something that children can very easily relate to and are used for a variety of purposes in the healthcare industry, such as rating on the pain scale.  Therefore, it seems to be quite appropriate to use them in attempts to better understand children’s diet preferences.  I could see where it would be extremely helpful with rating school food service to better understand kids likes and dislikes in order to reduce waste.  It gets tricky in labeling foods with smiley or frowny faces; although it helps them to better understand the foods they should be choosing, it’s not necessarily teaching them that it is ok to eat other foods in moderation.  It is not teaching them why those foods are labeled ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy.’  This definitely has the potential to be a great conversation starter between care-givers and children,” says Kristi King, MPH, RDN, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Senior Pediatric Dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital.

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“Now," says King, "If we could figure out how to use the emoji to get kids to try new foods – that might be something even more exciting!” That's tough. It seems like no matter how many frowny faces you put on chicken nuggets kids will still pick them over quinoa every time. 

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