Impacting Children’s Food Choices
With almost 32% of U.S. children and adolescents being overweight or obese, it is apparent that their easting behavior needs to be examined. And according to Adam Drewnoski, Professor of Epidemiology at the Univ. of Washington, who kicked off the session “Children’s Food Choices: What Industry Can Do,” the food industry has a responsibility to be a part of the change. “We [food industry professionals] are all in the business of trying to promote health,” said Drewnoski.
There’s a lot of research being conducted in childhood brain development, behavior, and societal impact that affect what children decide to eat. According to Drewnoski, children’s decision making involves relatively few factors. The first one and perhaps the most important is taste. Most children prefer sweet, salty, and umami flavors. The second factor is energy density (calories per unit volume). The “craving” for energy-dense foods is the desire for energy. Lastly, children rely on familiarity when making their food decisions. As Drewnoski explained, this is known as the “I don’t like it. I’ve never tried it,” phenomena. He stressed that the role of the family is critical in shaping preferences from a very early age. And, as he reminds us, the home is in fact where the majority of children get their food from. School food only makes up 5 –10% of children’s consumption depending on age.
Miguel Alonso-Alonso, Instructor in Neurology at Harvard’s Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, delved into the neurocognitive basis of children’s eating behavior. As he explained, the food we eat changes the way our brain works and vice versa. For example, an obese child’s brain responds differently than that of a non-obese child. Upon viewing an image of food or a brand of food, an obese child’s brain does not activate the areas involved in self-control. Thankfully, “there is a window of opportunity because younger brains have higher plasticity—the ability to change,” said Alonso-Alonso.
From the topic of brain development, Jennifer Fisher, Associate Professor at Temple Univ., lead the discussion to that of behavioral science. For children, “preference trumps all,” explained Fisher. “Children eat what they like and leave the rest.” According to Fisher, at the top of the list of what children want to eat are fat and sugar. Fruit is also closer to the top, probably because of the innate sweetness of most fruits. What’s at the bottom of the list? Vegetables. In fact, humans are programmed to not like bitter taste and so children do not naturally like some healthy foods such as vegetables.
However, eating behavior is not sealed in childhood. Repeated exposure and the quality of the food and surroundings children eat it in are key to altering food preferences. Interestingly, this exposure to foods, such as veggies, can start before birth. Fisher shared results from a study in which women in the last trimester of pregnancy and those in early lactation were given carrot juice to drink regularly. What the researchers found was that infants exposed to this in utero or in breast milk were more likely to accept carrot flavored cereal when they began eating solid food.
While a lot of the responsibility for exposing children to new and healthy foods falls on the shoulders of the parents, there is plenty of work that the food industry can do. As Drewnoski said in the conclusion of his presentation, “We must start creating rewarding foods with fewer calories, less sugar, fat, and sodium. It does no good to create foods that children won’t be interested in eating.”