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Popular belief has it that getting children to eat fruit and vegetables is on a par with achieving cold fusion. However, a new rash of studies and initiatives would suggest that it is not an impossible feat. Making minor, low-cost changes to school cafeterias, for example, can result in a significant increase in fruit and vegetable uptake, and fresh produce growers in the US are about to get a helping hand from Big Bird and the other characters appearing on Sesame Street.
It is no secret that cartoon characters help to sell food items aimed at children. Any marketer is free to come up with their own sprightly and colourful drawings, of course, but characters that are already part of popular culture, and which are loved and admired by children, have by far the biggest clout.
Now, if any company knows how to pull this off, it is Disney. In light of the growing childhood obesity epidemic, Disney and other companies, including Nickelodeon, have come increasingly under fire for pimping out their characters to junk food campaigns. Things had to change, and so Disney started licensing its cartoon creations to companies selling snacks made from fresh fruit and vegetables. The strategy seems to be working: Disney Consumer Products announced in October 2013 that sales of Disney-branded fruit and vegetables had tripled over the past year, shifting 3.1 billion servings across North America since 2006.
US-company Crunch Pak, for one, launched Flavorz, a line of fresh sliced, flavour-infused apple products back in May 2012, sporting packaging adorned with Disney characters. According to industry sources, Disney recently struck a licensing deal with California-based Freska Produce International, which plans to launch mangos in the coming year.
In October 2013, Sesame Workshop, the not-for-profit educational organisation behind Sesame Street, went a whole step further by announcing that it was to permit the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) the use of its world-famous Sesame Street characters like Elmo and Big Bird entirely free of charge in aid of promoting fresh fruit and vegetables to children.
The US’s First Lady Michelle Obama stands firmly behind the 2-year project, having made various TV appearances promoting it. Mrs Obama quoted a Cornell University Study, which had found that when children were given a choice between an apple and a cookie, most opted for the cookie, but if the apple was adorned with an Elmo sticker, the number of apple takers doubled.
It is predicted that members of the Sesame Street cast will be found cheering up US supermarkets’ fresh produce aisles from mid-2014 onwards.
2014 (1 July, to be exact) is also the year when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will ask schools to make sure its food offerings are in line with the USDA’s Smart Snacks nutrition standards, which are meant to increase pupils’ fruit and vegetable consumption. There are plenty of studies attesting to the fact that getting children to eat more fruit and vegetables in educational settings is not all that hard to achieve.
Michigan State University reported its findings in November 2013 that just by offering fruit and vegetables at lunchtime, both à la carte and in vending machines, students’ daily consumption of fruit was boosted by 26% and that of vegetables by 14%.
Earlier in 2013, the Cornell Center for Behavioural Economics in Child Nutrition Programs carried out a study entailing a “smarter lunchroom makeover”, in which small changes that cost less than US$50 were implemented with the objective of improving the attractiveness of fruit and vegetables as well as making them more convenient and accessible for students.
The measures included placing fresh fruit next to the till, displaying them on visually-appealing multi-tiered stands and having staff giving simple verbal incentives, such as “Would you like to try an apple?”. Researchers found that these small changes led to an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption by 18% and 25%, respectively.
Education also plays a not unimportant role in children’s motivation to consume fruit and vegetables. A study published in the journal Psychological Science in summer 2013, carried out by Stanford University, showed that even very young children respond positively to being taught the basics of nutrition and digestive processes and the crucial role of fruit and vegetables in maintaining health.
The study entailed five story books, created by the researchers, being read in two classrooms to children aged 4-5 years over a 3-month period. It was found that the group which had been exposed to the nutrition books voluntarily doubled its intake of vegetables during snack time, compared to those children who had not received the information.
The researchers placed emphasis on the point that, contrary to popular belief, a sole focus on enjoyment was not the only way to get young children interested in fruit and vegetables, but that adequately delivered science education could also be harnessed to achieve this end. Indeed, the investigators drew a comparison between their work and that cited by the USDA to back up its framework centred on the enjoyment factor, and concluded that the storybook method had achieved a greater uptake of fruit and vegetables amongst preschoolers.
Another Cornell University study, published in May 2013 in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, demonstrated the importance of the convenience factor by having school cafeterias offering sliced apples instead of giving the fruit to students in one piece. When the fruit was sliced, 73% more students ate more than half their apple compared to those who had been given whole apples.
Apple slicers, which slice an apple into six pieces, cost around US$200, a worthwhile investment for schools which are serious about boosting fresh fruit consumption, in the opinion of researchers. The provision of apple slicers could be a great opportunity for the industry to increase apple consumption in educational settings.
Finally, a potentially controversial piece of research was presented by a researcher from the University of Connecticut at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston in February 2013. In this study, preschool children were served vegetables that had been sprayed with a sugar mist. According to the researcher, the very fine coating of sugar, which only added eight calories to a serving of vegetables, was enough to counterbalance the inherent bitterness of vegetables that children often find so objectionable, significantly boosting their palatability.
The obvious criticism is that most children’s sugar intakes are already too high, and that sugar coating vegetables would get young kids accustomed to an unnaturally sweet taste, resulting in the rejection of produce that had not been treated this way.
The researchers, however, pointed out that sugar misting was initially very helpful in getting children to eat an unknown and/or previously rejected food, and that, once this hurdle was overcome, they would no longer object to eating unsugared versions of these vegetables. In any case, this is interesting work, and all efforts which show promise of being able to increase the acceptability of vegetables among children certainly warrant further investigation.