Carrots or kale? Potato or deer salami?
Food choices are affected by a wide range of conscious and unconscious factors, of which the most important are taste, smell and appearance. We can also instantly assess whether the food is healthy and if it looks familiar.
However, pure curiosity can be key for having school children taste something new, says Julia Sick, a newly educated MSc in Human Nutrition from University of Copenhagen:
“When I asked the children why they wanted to taste specific foods placed in front of them, they said: I’m just interested! I just want to taste it,” Julia Sick says.
In her thesis, she has mapped 10-12 year olds’ reasons for accepting or rejecting different kinds of food. It turned out that curiosity was the most frequent reason given by the children for choosing to taste the food.
At the University of Copenhagen, Dr. Annemarie Olsen, associate professor in sensory science and academic supervisor for Julia Sick, finds it remarkable that curiosity was the most frequent reason for acceptance.
“Julia Sick’s thesis shows that children in the age of 10-12 find it important that food tastes and smells good and looks appetizing, and that curiosity might be what makes the child decide to taste something new,” Annemarie Olsen explains.
“This finding underlines the fact that food choice is a complex matter, and that curiosity can be a key for having children choose a more balanced diet,” she says.
The importance of curiosity for children’s acceptance or rejection of different foods has only once before been studied, but it came up again and again when Julia Sick made a pilot study in connection with her thesis. She interviewed children about their food habits and let them explain what they thought was good and bad.
Hey, let’s eat the anchovy’s head!
Several studies have shown that children often prefer food that they are familiar with. In Julia Sick’s study, however, it did not have much significance for the children’s acceptance whether they where familiar with the food or not. Only when children rejected the food, unfamiliarity was given as a reason.
By far, the majority of the food was tasted. It was only some of the samples with blue cheese, pickled herring and anchovy that was left untouched.
“I was surprised to see that 80 pct. of the taste samples were accepted. A reason could be that the children are more curious in school than at home,” Julia Sick says.
Among the girls in the study, curiosity was the most frequently mentioned reason for tasting something, and among boys it was the second most frequent, only preceeded by the reason good taste.
The boys were also more willing to taste several times and used the food to challenge each other. Some of them said “Hey, let’s eat the anchovy’s head!”, Julia Sick recalls, and even though this challenge was meant just for fun, the boys generally had a mind to taste.
The ideal prerequisite for healthy eating habits
“Children’s curiosity seems to be the ideal prerequisite for trying and maybe subsequently accepting new foods,” Julia Sick says. She is motivated by a wish to understand children’s food choices in order to help them lay the foundation to eating habits with a lot of food variation.
Dr. Annemarie Olsen adds that even though friends and the school are of great importance for children’s food courage, families can also use the findings of the study at home:
“Parents can try to stimulate the children’s curiosity by taking in new food. They can also consider the playful and challenging aspects of tasting, shown by the boys in the study.”
The thesis was made in collaboration with the Danish research and communication center Taste for Life, supported by the foundation Nordea-fonden. The full thesis can be downloaded from the link on this page.
Mentioned in the article
Julia Sick is Msc in Human Nutrition. She is focusing on why children reject or accept the food that they do, and how curiosity can affect our choices.
Associate Professor, PhD, University of Copenhagen
Annemarie Olsen is a member of Taste for Life’s management and part of the focus area Science of Cooking. Her research relates to human eating behavior in the area of sensory and consumer research, primarily focusing on children. Main topics are food preferences and intervention strategies.
She is also Head of Studies for the MSc programme in Food Innovation and Health at the University of Copenhagen.