How can we encourage children and future generations to eat more vegetables? This is the question that many fresh produce buyers no doubt ask when they sigh at the thought of shoppers bypassing the Brussels sprouts during the upcoming festive season. It is also the question tackled by Danone Nutricia Early Life Nutrition (Nutricia), whose research, carried out with the University of Leeds, has concluded that if babies are introduced to vegetables as their first foods they are much more likely to accept and consume their greens in the future. We find out more from Katie Fordham, Nutricia’s science and innovation senior manager
The first 1,000 days: “a window of opportunity”
No matter what their age, the squeamish look of dislike on consumers’ faces when they are confronted with their least favourite vegetable is comically childish. But this juvenile-like reaction is perhaps unsurprising because, as Fordham explains, our taste preferences can be traced back to when we were very young.
“What you eat at (age) 20 is highly influenced by what you eat at the age of two or three,” she claims, adding that the first 1,000 days of our lives – from conception to our second birthday – is “a window of opportunity” that is too important to miss because it can influence our taste preferences, including our liking for vegetables.
Unfortunately, Europeans are apparently not making the most out of this crucial period. As Fordham points out, on average adults eat four portions of fruit and vegetables every day, when they should be eating at least five portions, and ideally seven or eight daily portions.
Nutricia therefore set out to find the best approach to help change this habit. The firm, which owns the baby food brand Cow & Gate, achieved this by collaborating with several UK universities on a European Union-funded VIVA research project that aimed to find ways of improving the acceptance and intake of vegetables among infants and children. Part of the research saw Nutricia team up with experts at the University of Leeds on a project, published in Appetite magazine, that explored the effects of early and repeated exposure to vegetables.
On the menu: carrots, green beans, spinach and broccoli
Fordham says previous research has found that when parents start to introduce a little bit of food into their baby’s diet – a process known as complementary feeding – they tend to use baby rice first.
She explains: “Only one in 10 parents would use vegetables as their first weaning food – and if they did use vegetables they would use something sweet, like carrots or butternut squash.” The VIVA research team decided to break the mould by trialling flavours of single vegetables – namely carrots, green beans, spinach and broccoli – which were introduced early on in the babies’ weaning process. The team formed two groups – an intervention group (IG) and a control group (CG) – of 18 mothers and their babies (aged between five and six months). A feeding plan was developed for each group and the research was carried out over 35 days.
For the first 12 days the IG infants were given 12 daily exposures of vegetable purée added to milk at home – followed by 12 daily exposures of vegetable purée added to baby rice at home (days 13 to 24). Meanwhile, plain milk and baby rice were given to the CG over the same period.
The final part of the experiment, from day 25 until day 35, saw babies from both groups being fed 11 daily exposures of pure vegetable purée. Parents from both groups were asked not to introduce any other new foods or flavours to the infants during the study. The type of vegetable was rotated daily and, interestingly, the researchers had to source single vegetable purées from mainland Europe as these were not available in the UK at the time.
The mothers were asked to keep a diary in which they recorded their baby’s food intake and rated their baby’s liking of the food. However, the research team carried out this note-taking on days 25 and 26, and days 33 to 35, when all of the participants of the study came into the laboratory for the day.
Gradual intervention “really works”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study showed that vegetable intake was significantly higher for those babies in the IG than those in the CG. For instance, the average intake of carrots during the day 25 lab session was 88.8g in the IG, compared with just 23.8g in the CG. Meanwhile, the average intake of green beans on the day 26 lab session was 55.8g for the IG and only 8.7g for the CG.
The results of the research – which was followed up when the children in the study were aged 12 months and 18 months – also showed that whilst the babies in the IG liked the foods more, the liking of the vegetables did nevertheless increase over time for both groups.
Fordham says: “The group that did not receive intervention did still increase its vegetable intake,” adding that whilst bitter flavours were much harder to introduce, continuing with this type of repeated approach “still works”.
Overall, the study’s findings suggest that if vegetables are introduced as the first food for babies, they are much more likely to eat them. “Gradual intervention really works,” notes Fordham.
“Start, vary, repeat”: a key message
One of the outcomes of this particular piece of research was the development and subsequent release onto the UK market earlier this year (2015), of Cow & Gate’s ‘Friends’ range of single vegetable purées for babies. The line includes four single pouches of broccoli, carrot, cauliflower and peas, with the packaging featuring the slogan: “a new way to learn to love veggies for life”.
Yet, as Fordham points out, “providing products is not going to change behaviour”. Indeed, she explains that one unexpected outcome of the research was that the babies’ liking of the vegetables was better rated by the lab team than by the parents.
Therefore, Fordham suggests that perhaps parents are giving up on foods too easily because they are “not necessarily interpreting their babies’ facial expressions correctly”. The study’s report also states that: “the majority of mothers found the instructions on recognising food refusal extremely useful”.
With this in mind, Nutricia has sought to help better educate parents. To that end, the firm developed the informative message “start, vary, repeat”. Fordham says the message is about the need to “keep trying [a food] so that your children like it.”
She explains: “That’s a message that we use consistently. We need to try new foods eight to ten times before we learn to love it.”
Fordham emphasises that Nutricia is continuing its research in this area and is also helping to give best practice advice to parents as well as the wider health care profession. She says: “Parents and consumers are responsive to, and listen to, a professional that they really trust so we know that, for mums and babies, the health care profession is really key.”
Arguably, what is clear from the study’s findings is that educating parents on how and when to introduce new vegetables to their children’s diet could help more people to like more vegetables – and potentially increase future vegetable consumption in the UK.
Katie Fordham of Nutricia was speaking at the 2015 edition of Food Matters Live in London on November 18.