Scientists at the USDA-ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center (CNRC) developed the "amusing and instructive" method as a means to teach children the importance of healthy food and exercise.
The CNRC's latest edutainment approaches fall under the umbrella of 'eHealth' programs, which are aimed at engaging children in nutrition studies through the use of devises such as the internet, video games, web-based games, comic books and cartoons.
The method is one already identified by some of the nation's major food brands, as a way to capture children's interest and boost sales. And it may well be the way forward as television advertising targeting children continues to come under increasing scrutiny.
The new study, which appears in this month's issue of the ARS' Agricultural Research magazine, builds on almost 30 years of research by ARS scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, on how to best nourish infants, children and adolescents.
One of the latest efforts, called 'Food, Fun and Fitness Internet Program for Girls,' targets 8-10 year-old black girls, a group that has higher than normal obesity rates and higher risk of heart disease, some cancers, diabetes and stroke in later life.
The program was designed by behavioral scientist Deborah Thompson in order to encourage increased consumption of fruit, juices, vegetables and water, as well as increased levels of physical activity.
The internet program focuses on culturally sensitive web-based comic strips that are aimed at reaching black girls, said the CNRC. The comic characters have different preferences when it comes to food and exercise, as well as different body features and hairstyles, something Thompson hopes will help girls identify with the characters and encourage them to complete the program.
During an 8-week study, a group of girls following the program was encouraged by their comic character 'friends' to stick to goals of eating five servings of fruit, juice and vegetables a day. According to the CNRC, preliminary results revealed that the program was successful.
This is not the first time that the USDA is trying to educate children about nutrition through the use of computer games.
The USDA's recent MyPyramid for Kids also attempts to tap into children's love of computer games, by presenting its message through an interactive computer game called MyPyramid Blast Off, whereby children must 'fuel' a rocket by making healthy diet and exercise choices. It also consists of a new graphic symbol for kids and lesson plans for grades one to six.