LONDON - Like TV cartoon characters pitching sugary children's cereal, the Food Dudes of Ireland pitch food, too. Only it's carrots and broccoli.
The Food Dudes are preteen actors playing superheroes in an educational video series shown in some Irish schools. They battle General Junk, who steals healthy food, robbing the world of its life force.
The superheroes not only win on video , they win in the school cafeteria, too. Kids who watch the videos began eating more fruits and vegetables. Now, Ireland is expanding this 150-school pilot program to the whole country.
"In some respects, we use the same techniques as multinationals selling junk food, but we're on the side of the angels," said Dr. Fergus Lowe, a University of Wales psychologist who was part of the team that devised the effort.
The Food Dudes series uses peer pressure, peer modeling and a reward system to get kids to shun unhealthy foods. Prizes like small toys, pencils and pens are an enticement. And the superheroes are slightly older than their viewers, making them believable role models. Each character gets super powers from one of four healthy foods , broccoli, carrots, tomaotes and raspberries.
In Ireland's pilot program, which began in 2005, children aged 2 to 11, doubled the amount of fruits and vegetables eaten and in some cases boosted consumption of such foods by 10 to 14 times, the organizers say.
In one primary school, the fruit consumption of 5- and 6-year-olds more than doubled. The kids were originally eating 28 percent of the fruit given them; six months later they were eating nearly 60 percent. Vegetable consumption jumped from 8 percent to 32 percent.
In a control school, where the program was not used, no change in fruit or vegetable consumption was noted.
Lowe and his colleagues found the most dramatic results in fussy eaters. Children who were initially the most reluctant to eat fruits and veggies made the biggest gains.
In one study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the children who ate the least amount of fruits and vegetables went from eating just 4 percent and 11 percent of their fruits and vegetables respectively to 68 percent and 48 percent.
The World Health Organization recently honored Food Dudes with a best practices award. The program was funded by the Irish government, the European Union Commission and Unilever, the world's second-largest food and detergent maker.
Scotland has introduced a modified version of it in 210 schools in Glasgow, and England is experimenting with the Food Dudes in schools in London and Plymouth.
"People had assumed that it would be very difficult to make fruits and vegetables appealing to children, but Food Dudes has proven that that's not true," said Dr. Francesco Branca, WHO's European adviser for nutrition and food security, who is not involved in the program.
Inspired by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, Britain has recently been moving aggressively to improve the quality of school food.
In 2005, the government announced it would bar school cafeterias from serving hamburgers and hot dogs loaded low-quality meats and fillers. Beginning in September, soft drinks, chocolate bars and potato chips will be outlawed from school vending machines.
The poor quality of school food first rose to the national consciousness thanks to Oliver's TV series "Jamie's School Dinners," which shocked Britons by showing them exactly what kids were eating at school.