N° 34 | July 2018

Visual exposure and categorization performance positively influence 3- to 6-year-old children’s willingness to taste unfamiliar vegetables

Food neophobia, defined as the refusal to eat new foods1, and food selectivity, defined as the refusal to eat certain types of food and certain textures2, are largely responsible for the limited consumption of fruit and vegetables in children3,4 and can have alarming consequences on health. It is therefore essential to carry out effective campaigns to reduce this food rejection (neophobia and selectivity) in children.

10 to 15 taste exposures are needed for children to accept new food!

Many studies have highlighted the effectiveness of taste exposure on neophobia and food selectivity5, showing that repeated taste exposure to new foods seems to increase the willingness to eat this food (which was initially rejected).

However, the mechanisms responsible for this positive exposure effect remain as yet largely unknown. Furthermore, from a practical point of view, these strategies can have limited effectiveness in reducing neophobia and food selectivity, as several studies have revealed that 10 to 15 taste exposures to new food could be needed for acceptance by pre-school children6, i.e. a higher number than what most parents are prepared to put up with.

Visual exposure increases the consumption of vegetables in children

In light of the results of previous studies, which show a correlation between development of categorisation skills and food rejection6,7, we hypothesised that exposure campaigns can be effective when they serve to improve the children’s categorisation and inductive reasoning skills (notably highly neophobic children). If exposure, by enhancing the content of food categories in children, facilitates the recognition (e.g. recognising a courgette), categorisation (e.g. knowing that a courgette is a vegetable) and induction process (e.g. knowing that if a courgette contains vitamins, another courgette also contains vitamins), it could reduce the likelihood of a food item being rejected. This is why the purpose of this study was to develop a project based on exposure with a view to putting this hypothesis to the test, in an attempt to explain the mechanisms involved in the effects of exposure. We focused solely on visual exposure, which is innovative as (i) we work on rejection at the mere sight of food and (ii) it is easier to implement in the context of school or the family.

This study was carried out in two phases with 70 children enrolled in three nursery schools in Southeast Lyon. Before the canteen intervention, a test measuring the categorisation performance and a taste test were conducted on the 70 children. The children were next exposed visually to different vegetables via place mats used every day in the canteen for two weeks. Finally, their categorisation performance and willingness to try unknown food were measured again after the intervention. The results of this study are very promising as they show the beneficial effect of visual exposure to vegetables on the children’s willingness to try this type of food. After visual exposure, the children ate more new vegetables. In addition, the children’s categorisation performance (e.g. being able to recognise a courgette, knowing that it is a vegetable) positively influences this willingness to try.

Develop educational tools to promote the consumption of vegetables

These results can be taken into account when developing new educational tools with a view to promoting the consumption of rejected foods such as vegetables. These tools could take the form of serious games (educational games) like lotto games for example, helping children familiarise themselves visually with different vegetables of different shapes and colours.

As the results of the latest study show that visual exposure alone (without taste exposure) is effective in increasing the consumption of vegetables in children, it seems appropriate to expose them visually via games in a playful context.

Based on: Rioux, C., Picard, D., & Lafraire, L. (2016). Food rejection and the development of food categorization in young children. Cognitive
Development, 40, 163-177.

  1. Pliner, P., & Hobden, K. (1992). Development of a scale to measure the trait of food neophobia. Appetite, 19(2), 105–120.
  2. Taylor, C. M., Wernimont, S. M., Northstone, K., & Emmett, P. M. (2015). Picky/fussy eating in children: review of definitions, assessment, prevalence and dietary intakes. Appetite, 95, 349–359.
  3. Dovey, T. M., Staples, P. A., Gibson, E. L., & Halford, J. C. G. (2008). Food neophobia and “picky/fussy eating in children: a review. Appetite, 50(2-3), 181–193.
  4. Lafraire, J., Rioux, C., Giboreau, A., & Picard, D. (2015). Food rejections in children: Cognitive and social/environmental factors involved in food neophobia and picky/fussy eating behavior. Appetite, 96, 347-357.
  5. Cooke, L. J. (2007). The importance of exposure for healthy eating in childhood: a review. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics: The Official Journal of the British Dietetic Association, 20(4), 294– 301.
  6. Heath, P., Houston-Price, C., & Kennedy, O. B. (2011). Increasing food familiarity without the tears. A role for visual exposure? Appetite, 57(3), 832–838.
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