Kids can point out fast food restaurants at a very young age — almost before they can talk. Early recognition of highly advertised, branded foods happens at home, too, a recent study found. Preschoolers are already aware of food brands and, unsurprisingly, they are generally better at identifying heavily branded unhealthy foods than healthy items.

How can green beans or orange segments compete with packaging featuring cartoon characters and sugar? And how are parents supposed to cope?

Children between the ages of three and five were surveyed one at a time, while at school, about their knowledge of food brands. Their parents also completed questionnaires describing the family's eating, TV viewing habits, and demographics.

The strongest predictor of kids’ knowledge of unhealthy foods is what their parents eat.

The Irish researchers showed the kids nine food brand logos and product images; four were considered healthy and five were less healthy. All of the foods were widely advertised in Ireland. The products included those from McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Cadbury. Children were asked to match the logo with a photo of the corresponding food and if they knew what the food was.

Madison Avenue would be happy with what the researchers found: Kids could name about a third of the brands, put a name to half of the food items, and could match the logo to two-thirds of the products. Across the board, the children did a better job at recognizing the five less healthy brands than they did the healthy foods.

Why were they able to recognize the unhealthy foods better? It wasn’t just because of television, although that was certainly a factor. The researchers found that the strongest predictor of kids’ knowledge of unhealthy foods is what their parents eat.

So, simply focusing on doing your best to restrict children's exposure to television advertising is not enough to protect children from marketing for unhealthy foods and encourage healthy eating. There is more to the equation.

Family-based healthy eating interventions need to be designed to be playful and visually appealing, and they should be aimed at children before the effect of food brands takes hold, which is near the age of three, the researchers say.

The interventions should not just be limited to kids though. Given how much parents' choice of unhealthy foods affects their children, parents also need to learn a few things as well.

The study is published in Appetite.