N° 91 | July 2014

Vegetable variety: An effective strategy to increase vegetable choice in children

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Do you remember the last time you were at a buffet and regretted not trying everything? All of the tempting varieties of foods make resistance difficult - however research has now shown that exactly this effect can be used strategically to improve children’s food choices.

Variety truly is the spice of life, even when it comes to vegetables

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a daily intake of at least 400 grams of fruit and vegetables which, unfortunately, most children do not meet1. And, even worse - bad dietary habits tend to track into adolescence and adulthood2. While most children like fruits, they are pickier when it comes to vegetables. Increasing children’s vegetable intake is therefore more difficult.

Recently, nudging approaches, which focus on altering the food and eating environment instead of providing information to promote healthy eating, have gained attention. The idea is that more healthful choices could be made the easier choices, by simple changes in the environment3. Different nudging strategies have already shown to be promising in adults. As an example, it was demonstrated, that people eat less chocolate, when the effort to obtain a piece was increased slightly, by just wrapping it in transparent foil4. In a similar way, increased vegetable variety could be used to increase children’s intake of fruit and vegetables. Variety is usually known to increase consumption. But what happens, if there is a strategically increase in the variety of healthy options? Can this approach nudge children to eat healthier?

Children are picky eaters, especially when it comes to vegetables

Previous research suggests that unlike adults, children might be more responsive to internal signals such of hunger and satiety and liking, rather than food related external cues5. Therefore, it was unclear, whether school-aged children could also be ‘nudged’ into selecting more vegetables. To test this, an experiment with very authentic replica foods was conducted6.

Children served food from a ‘fake food buffet’

One hundred children aged 7 to 10 years old were invited to the laboratory to serve themselves a meal from a small buffet of fake foods (The Fake Food Buffet*). The foods on the “buffet” included chicken strips and pasta, along with vegetable choices of cooked carrots and beans. Children were randomly assigned to the experimental conditions: they could either serve one vegetable with the meal or they were offered both vegetables.

The children in the group that were offered two vegetables instead of only one served themselves signifi cantly more vegetables. The percentage of energy from vegetable almost doubled from 6% (37 kJ and 38 kJ) to 11% (64 kJ) when two vegetables were served instead of only one. Interestingly, however, they did not serve themselves a meal with higher calorie content. This means that the children offered two vegetables had a higher proportion of energy from vegetables, composing a more nutrient-dense meal. Even children that reported not liking these vegetables served themselves more veggies if they were offered two types rather than one.

If children are offered more vegetables, they choose more vegetables!

Why did children choose more vegetables when offered two instead of only one? The finding can be explained with a ‘consumption norm’. The theory suggests that if children are presented with several different foods to choose and serve from, they will serve themselves at least a taste of all of the dishes. Thus, when children are given the choice of more varieties of healthy foods, in the end, they serve themselves a more nutrient-rich meal.

Researchers conclude from this experiment that offering a variety of vegetables to children might be a simple and effective strategy to nudge them to eat more vegetables and healthier meals, not just at home, but also in school cafeterias.

* The fake food buffet (FFB), a new method that uses replica food items for experimental investigation of food choice, has recently been proven as a reliable and valid method to investigate the effect of external infl uences7. It was shown that the amount of food served from fake foods is highly correlated with the amount of food served from a buffet containing the corresponding real food items7 . Using fake foods instead of real foods for experimental studies reduces food waste, preparation effort, and costs, as the items do not need to be cooked and are reused. Most importantly, the FFB allows for study of individual subjects under controlled laboratory conditions. Therefore, this method is very suitable for investigation of environmental infl uences on food choice.

Article based on: Bucher, T., Siegrist, M. & van der Horst, K. (in press). Vegetable Variety: An effective strategy to Increase Vegetable Choice in Children. Public Health Nutrition. doi:10.1017/S1368980013002632

  1. Vereecken CA, De Henauw S, Maes L: Adolescents’ food habits: Results of the health behaviour in school-aged children survey. Brit J Nutr 2005, 94(3):423–431.
  2. te Velde SJ, Twisk JWR, Brug J: Tracking of fruit and vegetable consumption from adolescence into adulthood and its longitudinal association with overweight (vol 98, pg 434, 2007). Br J Nutr 2007, 98(4):871–871.
  3. Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press
  4. Brunner, T. (2013). It takes some effort: How minimal physical effort reduces consumption volume. Appetite 71(1): 89-94.
  5. Ashcroft J, Semmler C, Carnell CM S van Jaarsveld, Wardle J: Continuity and stability of eating behaviour traits in children. Eur J Clin Nutr 2008, 62(8):985–990.
  6. Bucher, T., Siegrist, M. & van der Horst, K. (in press). Vegetable Variety: An effective strategy to Increase Vegetable Choice in Children. Public Health Nutrition. doi:10.1017/S1368980013002632
  7. Bucher T, van der Horst K, Siegrist M: The fake food buffet – a new method in nutrition behaviour research. Brit J Nutr 2012, 107(10):1553–1560.
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