Should We Sneak Vegetables onto Children’s Plates?

Investigators from Columbia University enrolled 68 elementary and middle school children and asked just that question.  In each pair, one sample’s label included the food’s vegetable (e.g. “broccoli gingerbread spice cake”), and one sample’s label did not (e.g. “gingerbread spice cake”). Participants reported whether the samples tasted the same, or whether they preferred one sample. What the children didn’t know was that both samples contained the nutritious vegetable.  The investigators found that taste preferences did not differ for the labeled versus the unlabeled sample of zucchini chocolate chip bread or broccoli gingerbread spice cake.  However, students preferred the unlabeled cookies (e.g. “chocolate chip cookies”) over the vegetable-labeled version (e.g. “chickpea chocolate chip cookies”). The investigators also assessed the frequency of consumption for the three vegetables involved and chickpeas were consumed less frequently (81% had not tried in past year) as compared to zucchini and broccoli.
“The present findings are somewhat unanticipated in that we were expecting students to prefer all three of the ‘unlabeled’ samples,” says Lizzy Pope, MS, RD, the principal investigator of this study. “These findings are consistent with previous literature on neophobia that suggests that children are less apt to like food with which they are unfamiliar.  Since the majority of students had had broccoli and zucchini within the past year (as compared to chickpeas), it appears that there must be some familiarity with a vegetable for the labeling of the vegetable content not to influence taste preference.  Considering this then, it is not surprising that the unlabeled version of the chickpea chocolate chip cookies was preferred over the labeled version.”
Co-investigator Randi Wolf, PhD, MPH, adds: “Food products labeled with health claims may be perceived as tasting different than those without health claims, even though they are not objectively different. I’ve even read studies that have shown children like baby carrots better when they are presented in McDonald’s packaging.  These prior studies suggest the potential power that food labels can have on individuals. Although anecdotal reports suggest that children may not eat food products that they know contain vegetables, little is actually known about how children’s taste preferences may be affected when the vegetable content of a snack food item is apparent on the item’s label. This study is important in that it may contribute knowledge of the potential effectiveness of a novel way to promote vegetable consumption in children.”
“The Influence of Labeling the Vegetable Content of Snack Food on Children’s Taste Preferences: A Pilot Study” features an accompanying podcast in which Pope discusses the results and implications this study.
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