Does the same exact food taste better when it’s in McDonald’s packaging?

It sure does, according to preschoolers.

A new report in the August issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that preschool children preferred the taste of food in McDonald’s packaging to the taste of the same exact food in unbranded packaging.

“Food marketing to children is widespread. The food and beverage industries spend more than $10 billion per year to market to children in the United States,” according to background information in the article.

The article says that by age 2, children may already have beliefs about certain brands and 2- to -6-year-olds can recognize brands and associate them with products.

"You see a McDonald's label and kids start salivating," said Diane Levin, a childhood development specialist who campaigns against advertising to children. She had no role in the research.

Levin said it was "the first study I know of that has shown so simply and clearly what's going on with (marketing to) young children."

Study author Dr. Tom Robinson said the kids' perception of taste was "physically altered by the branding." The Stanford University researcher said it was remarkable how children so young were already so influenced by advertising.

The study involved 63 low-income children ages 3 to 5 from Head Start centers in San Mateo County, California. Robinson believes the results would be similar for children from wealthier families.

The research was funded by Stanford and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

For the study, researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine had preschoolers taste five pairs of identical foods and beverages in basic McDonald’s packaging and in matched but unbranded packaging. Parents completed a questionnaire on their child’s race/ethnicity, age, exposure to McDonald’s food, and toys and television viewing habits.

The foods and beverages given to the children included a quarter of a McDonald’s hamburger, a Chicken McNugget, McDonald’s French fries, about three ounces of 1 percent fat milk (or apple juice for one child who was not allowed to drink milk) and two baby carrots.

The children performed a total of 304 individual tasting comparisons for the study.

According to the findings:

— 48.3 percent of the children preferred the taste of the McDonald’s-branded hamburger vs. 36.7 percent who preferred the non-branded burger

— 59 percent preferred branded Chicken McNuggets vs. 18 percent for the non-branded

— 76.7 percent preferred McDonald’s-branded fries vs. 13.3 percent who preferred the non-branded fries

— 54.1 percent preferred “McDonald’s” carrots vs. 23 percent for the non-branded carrots

— 61.3 percent preferred McDonald's-branded milk or apple juice vs. 21 percent who liked the non-branded milk and juice

A secondary analysis found that children preferred the tastes of foods and drinks that were thought to be from McDonald’s for four out of five comparisons. Preschoolers with more television sets in their homes and children who ate McDonald’s food more often were more likely to prefer foods and drinks they thought were from McDonald’s, the study concluded.

The Associated Press contributed to this story