A McNugget by Any Other Name . . .

. . . does not taste as good. So concludes a study that will send shivers down the spine of any parent foolish enough to cut up white-meat chicken, dredge it in tasty breadcrumbs, lightly saute the chunks in healthy oil and present it to a child. If you've tried this, chances are your reward was something along the lines of, "yuck, these aren't McNuggets!"

Now science has validated what parents have long known: children's food preferences are largely in their head (and I don't mean just their taste buds). When researchers at Stanford University gave 63 3- to 5-year-olds McNuggets from a McDonald's bag or in McDonald's wrapping, and identical McNuggets from unmarked paper packaging, the kids said the samples--identical, remember---tasted different, and they preferred ones in the McDonald's wrapping by a wide margin. They said the same thing about fries, carrots and milk; only with identical hamburgers (both from Mickey D's and packaged either in the golden arches wrapping or plain wrapping) did the kids say they tasted basically the same.

I doubt the explanation is that special McDonald's paper imparted a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to the nuggets. Instead, says Stanford's Thomas Robinson, "kids actually believe that the chicken nugget they think is from McDonald's tastes better than an identical, unbranded nugget." (The study is being published today in the August issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine). Intriguingly, kids with more TVs at home and those who most frequent McDonald's were the most likely to prefer nuggets, fries and even carrots and milk in the McDonald's wrapper.

What you believe affects what you perceive. It's stretching the definiton only a bit to file this under the heading, 'placebo effect,' since just as when patients improve after being given sham surgery or a sugar pill rather than real surgery or something pharmacologically active, what you think affects your physiology. The placebo effect is so powerful in fighting depression that manufacturers of new anti-depressant medications have trouble showing their product to be more effective than just getting patients to think they're being helped. Placebos have also alleviated the symptoms of Parkinson's disease [http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v7/n6/abs/nn1250.html]. The idea that thinking you're getting the "real" McNuggets makes them taste better somehow doesn't seem that surprising.

There's an upside, though. If someone can convince kids that healthy foods taste great, are cool or have other desirable qualities, there's a good chance their taste buds--driven by the expectations set up in their brain--will agree.