The food industry has long striven to make food for children as appealing as possible and less healthy products might come in bright colours, unusual shapes or with a gift or toy. But with pressure to address the growing tide of obesity, as well as measures to curb marketing of unhealthy foods to kids, both parents and the food industry are keyed into ways to encourage children to eat more healthily.
The researchers behind the new study, accepted for publication in the Elsevier journal Appetite, set out to assess the impact of restriction and visual appearance on children’s willingness to eat.
They recruited 94 children aged between 4 and 7 years from primary schools in Belgium and The Netherlands. Two tasting sessions took place, both involving one platter of regular fruit and one platter of visually appealing fruit cut into shapes.
In the first session, the children were divided into two groups. Each group was allowed to eat from one platter but not the other. In the second session, all the children were allowed to eat as much as they wanted from both platters.
The researchers, led by Ester Jansen of Maastricht University, were surprised to observe that previous restriction of one form of fruit did not seem to make the children eat more the next time they were allowed to. This ran counter to their hypothesis that sweets are attractive to children because parents often restrict them.
They did find, however, that the children were prepared to eat twice as much of the attractive fruit as they were the normal, unprepared fruit.
“Parents, schools, supermarkets and food producers should take advantage of these results and offer children fruit and vegetables that are presented in a visually appealing manner,” Jansen and colleagues wrote.
The children expressed awareness that the two forms of fruit would taste exactly the same. “Perhaps it was not about taste, but about fun,” the researchers suggest. In any case, that the visual appeal was the driver behind higher consumption was an assumption that the researchers admitted was a limitation of the study.
They also said that novelty could be a factor. “It cannot be predicted for how long a new, more (visually) appealing presentation of fruit remains interesting for children,” they wrote.
“When children are exposed to a new kind of fruit presentation for a number of times, they might lose interest in the fruit. Therefore, in the long term, it is probably necessary for parents and food producers to remain innovative.”
Appetite, published online ahead of print
How to promote fruit consumption in children. Visual appeal versus restriction
Esther Jansen, Sandra Mulkens, Anita Jansen