I recently encountered an interesting article on Medical News Today about research conducted by Kent State University scholars about children’s food preferences, “Strawberries, Watermelon, Grapes, Oh My! Study Finds Students Will Opt For Healthy Foods In The Lunch Line.” Despite the upbeat title, I find the news reported hopeful but mixed from the standpoint of healthy nutrition choices.
The fact that children rank fruits among their favorite foods is encouraging. This is balanced, though by the inclusion of preference for pizza and fast-food-style choices as also among their favorites. I’m also more ambivalent than the article’s author in seeing something like “string cheese” as a healthy food. At the same time, it is encouraging to hear that even as they offer lunch options of pizza and fast food style choices, more school districts are offering healthier versions of these items than in the past.
On a last note, while the researchers attribute preferences such as pizza, French fries, or chicken nuggets to cultural influence, I would tend to argue that preferences for things like fruits or for such fast food fare are all mediated by a combination of evolutionarily selected biological factors and cultural influences. A taste for certain food qualities, such as sweetness, the taste and texture of fats or proteins, saltiness, etc., seem to be a part of our evolutionary heritage, with this part of the reason that children (or adults) find fruits or chicken nuggets tasty. Patterns of consuming and acquiring a preference for specific food items are clearly also shaped by cultural context, though the precise influences shaping children’s desires for grapes or pizza differ.
The following is a selection from the article:
“Strawberries, grapes, and yogurt are just some of the healthier food items children prefer, researchers argue in a new study released this week. Kent State University researchers surveyed 1,818 students in grades 3 through 12, asking them what their favorite foods were. The study, included in the Winter 2007 issue of the Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, found that items such as strawberries, watermelon, white milk, and string cheese ranked among the "Top 20" foods, demonstrating that children will eat fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. “The researchers also found differences in taste between grade levels. Elementary school students were more likely to rank fruits much higher than older children, while "fast and familiar" foods such as chicken nuggets and hamburgers were less preferred by middle school and high school students.
“Although healthy items made the "Top 20" list, children still consider pizza, French fries, and chicken nuggets among their favorite foods. The researchers attribute this to the influence of culture on students. On average, approximately 30% of students consume fast food on any given day, making it more likely that students will eat these foods at school. To accommodate their tastes, school nutrition professionals offer these items, but use healthier ingredients such as whole grains, low-fat cheese, and lean meats and prepare the foods with healthier cooking techniques such as baking.
"School foodservice professionals and dietitians have been promoting the consumption of a wide variety of foods for a healthy diet," concluded researchers Natalie Caine-Bish, PhD, RD, LD and Barbara Scheule, PhD, RD. "Menu planners should consider the inclusion of these selections (favorite foods) in their menus as means to improve nutritional quality as well as satisfaction."