This article is also available in French.
Consumer health is a real concern for the food industry, in particular the health of children who are not eating enough fruit and vegetables. The food industry has a role to play in improving their acceptance and helping parents include fruit and vegetables in their children’s diets. A recent research program indicates that successful approaches include varying appearance, offering food repetitively and giving children choice.
Why this should interest you
- The food industry has a role to play in the acceptance of fruit and vegetables and the children’s food behaviour.
- There are easy methods for developing a range of specific products to meet this need.
- Repeatedly offering new foods to children makes them more attractive.
- The appearance, texture, shape and type of culinary preparation of vegetables must be considered to make them attractive.
- Offering several vegetables and leaving children to choose increases acceptance and consumption.
Child nutrition is a sensitive issue both for parents who want to offer their children the best, and for the food industry who is constantly challenged to develop quality products. It is common to see children categorically refuse carrot mash or pieces of turnip. Yet fruit and vegetables are sources of vitamins, fibre and minerals with low-calorie intake. In France, only 6% of children consume five fruit and vegetables a day, according to a CREDOC study. Yet, one in six children are overweight (see our blog post for more information – in French). In order to stem this trend, the food industry has a role to play in establishing good eating habits among young people.
How can children be encouraged to eat more fruit and vegetables? How can they be taught to enjoy them? What is the ideal age for this education? Key periods, including infant diversification, and when dietary preferences are determined in children must be identified to answer these questions.
Results of the HabEat research program have provided several solutions for food-industry professionals including adapting portions, improving taste and flavours, proposing different textures, and developing guides for parents.
HabEat Programme (2010 – 2014)
Determining factors and critical periods in food Habit formation and breaking in Early childhood: a multidisciplinary approach
This European research program was designed to learn more about key periods and mechanisms in the formation of child food preferences, from birth to the age of six. The project, with 4 “work packages” and 11 multidisciplinary teams from 6 European countries generated 3 theses, several scientific publications and a multitude of results!
Accredited by Vitagora, the HabEat project has resulted in recommendations for parents, early childhood professionals, paediatricians, and policy makers to encourage children to eat more fruit and vegetables. Solutions have also been proposed to the food industry about making suitable foods for children, and guides have been developed for parents.
Practical advice for parents
A food must be eaten at least eight times before it can be appreciated
The key to getting a child used to eating a fruit or vegetable is repetition. Most parents stop offering food after three refusals. But eight is the magic number of times food should be offered with intervals of several days. A child’s surprise at a new food is sometimes interpreted as disgust, even when it is not the case. Any education process requires repetition. Take the example of politeness: parents repeat “say hello” and “say thank you” all day long. Appreciating new flavours takes time and requires repetition.
Don’t mask food flavour
If children are to enjoy a food, it is important to allow them the opportunity to discover its unique flavour. Avoid masking the aromas of vegetables with familiar tastes (such as cheese or tomato sauce) or to increase the energy density (with cream or butter) to make it more attractive.
Different strategies using shape and appearance
Two effective strategies were highlighted by the HabEat research programme: varying appearance, form or type of food preparation, and giving children a choice. Using colours, shapes, textures and layout, parents can propose the same food several times in different ways, allowing children to discover what they like. Aubergine, leek or cabbage? Allowing a child to decide gives them the impression they are not being forced to eat vegetables and that they have a real choice.
“Difficult” children eat less fruit and vegetables
Analysis of four groups revealed a significant proportion of children are considered difficult to feed by their parents. Subsequently, these children eat less fruit and vegetables and the quality of their diet is inferior. It seems important to identify the profiles of both the parents and the children to understand why fruit and vegetables are rejected.
Breastfeeding is associated with the acceptance of fruit and vegetables
The shorter the period of breastfeeding, the less fruit and vegetables children eat between ages two and five. This is regardless of how much fruit and vegetables are consumed by the mother... The varied aromas of breast milk compared to infant formula means children accept a greater range of flavours, and therefore eat more fruit and vegetables.
Some surprising results
Not all children regulate their intake in the same way
The majority of children tend to eat too much. Contrary to what researchers expected, two types of children were observed: those who eat without feeling hungry, and those who reduce their intake following a pre-meal snack. Mechanisms for regulating food intake differ. For the first group, it is a case of response to external stimuli, and for the second group, homeostatic regulation of food intake to maintain equilibrium.
The critical period for beginning to introduce food is not clearly defined
Researchers initially assumed that introducing fruit and vegetables into an infant’s diet between four and six months of age would be conducive to optimal acceptance later on. Yet, this was not confirmed by analysis conducted on different groups. Researchers concluded that age was not the only determinant. In fact, country of origin appears to a better explanation of later consumption. For example, the greater consumption of tomatoes and peppers in children in Spain corresponds to which they are introduced to the diet quite early but for which sociocultural factors were also a major influence.
Neophobia is not a barrier to fruit and vegetable consumption
Around the age of three to four years, neophobia or the fear of novelty causes new foods to be rejected. According to WHO recommendations it is therefore necessary to introduce fruit and vegetables as early as possible, at around six months. Yet, even during the period of neophobia, it seems possible to gradually increase the consumption of vegetables in small quantities. The key is repetition, repetition, repetition.
Leads for the food industry
These results help to clarify both children’s and parents’ needs. One solution is developing formats adapted to the very beginning of dietary diversification when small quantities are eaten. Parents would also feel supported by the development of guides to optimise the introduction of fruit and vegetables in their children’s diets. Designing portions of vegetables in different forms, cooked differently, or healthy vegetable-based snacks could also encourage children to eat more regularly - and parents to offer them more often.
Child, Food, vegetables, fruit, Diversification, Research, Breastfeeding, Preferences, behaviour
To find out more about HabEat, contact Elodie da Silva: email@example.com
A food engineer from the French city of Toulouse, Elodie leads the "Innovation & Ecosystem" team of Vitagora in providing support for agrifood business innovation goals, with enthusiasm, professionalism and confidentiality.
- Harris, G., and Coulthard, H. (2016). Early Eating Behaviours and Food Acceptance Revisited: Breastfeeding and Introduction of Complementary Foods as Predictive of Food Acceptance. Curr. Obes. Rep. 5, 113–120.
- Monnery-Patris, S., Wagner, S., Rigal, N., Schwartz, C., Chabanet, C., Issanchou, S., and Nicklaus, S. (2015). Smell differential reactivity, but not taste differential reactivity, is related to food neophobia in toddlers. Appetite 95, 303–309.
- Yuan, W.L., Rigal, N., Monnery-Patris, S., Chabanet, C., Forhan, A., Charles, M.-A., and de Lauzon-Guillain, B. (2016). Early determinants of food liking among 5y-old children: a longitudinal study from the EDEN mother-child cohort. J. Behav. Nutr. Phys. Act. 13.
- HabEat website