One reason you can't convince your kids to consume more healthy foods is that kids think junk food tastes better.
No news flash there. But guess what, your kids aren't alone. Chances are, you think unhealthy foods taste better than healthy ones too...Unless you're French.
Damn those French! They eat whatever they want and don't get fat (a phenomenon known as The French Paradox), their kids eat everything, and now this: The French think healthy foods taste good.
Research shows that Americans think unhealthy food is tasty, and the French feel the opposite.
There's a technique researchers use to uncover what people subconsciously or intuitively think (seems like magic to me). It involves timing how long it takes people to press a button when two ideas fit together compared to how long it takes them to press the button when the ideas don't fit together.
In this case, researchers showed people pictures of healthy or unhealthy foods, and words like tasty and delicious or other words such as flavorless and unapalatable.
- When Americans put together unhealthy food with tasty words their reaction time is faster than when they put together healthy food with tasty words.
- In France, unhealthy food is spontaenously associated with bad taste, while healthy food is linked to tastiness.
Even if you think that you think healthy foods are tasty, you probably don't.
In the American study, even people who said they believe healthy food IS tasty still classified unhealthy foods with enjoyment faster than they were able to classify healthy food with enjoyment.
But wait, there's more.
In the American study:
1) Researchers showed people crackers with different amounts of "bad" fat and asked them how tasty they thought the crackers would be. The highest tastiness rating went to the crackers with the highest amount of "bad" fat.
2) Researchers asked people to sample a Mango Lassi (an Indian milkshake-like drink) that was either described as healthy or as unhealthy. People enjoyed the Mango Lassi more when it was described as unhealthy than when it was described as healthy.
3) Researchers asked one group to imagine they were "craving something really tasty" and that "they wanted to reward themselves with a nice snack." Another group was told to imagine they were "in the mood for a snack." Then, the researchers offered each group a choice of either a high fat or a low fat cheddar cheese cracker. People who were told to imagine they craved something tasty were more likely to pick the cracker with the higher amount of fat.
French and American children start out with the same basic likes (chocolate) and dislikes (vegetables). So how do French adults end up preferring healthy food?
Researchers conclude the following:
- American families focus on food as nutrition and give low priority to food as pleasure.
- American families use food as reward.
- American families have high levels of anxiety around eating because we worry about getting nutrition right.
- In America, earning the right to indulge (with junk), requires hard work (eating healthily).
- In America, we tend to think about food more in terms of right and wrong, allowed vs forbidden. Forbidden things are usually more desirable.
- The French focus on pleasure, social interaction, culinary issues and quality.
- The French tend to focus more on the experience of eating and less on the health consequences of eating.
- The French emphasize moderation and high quality.
- In France there is more of a hedonic (pleasure) view of food consumption.
I would add French parents think more about taste development. Read Early Vegetable Variety: The French Advantage.
It might be hard to fight against the dominant cultural message that unhealthy food is tastier than healthy food but you can try to balance the message.
Ever give your kids the Chocolate Cake Look—you know, the wide-eyed excitement you pair with your extra-happy voice when serving chocolate cake, ice cream or other goodies—when serving carrots? How you present things matters.
Fight the temptation to trade peas for pie.
Then, teach your kids that eating healthy food isn't just the healthy way to eat. It's the tasty way to eat as well. Make healthy food taste good.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~
Raghunathan, R., R. Walker Naylor, and W. D. Hoyer. 2006. “The Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition and Its Effects on Taste Inferences, Enjoyment, and Choice of Food Products.” Journal of Marketing 70: 170-84.
Werle, C. O. C., O. Trendel, and G. Ardito. “Unhealthy Food is Not Tastier for Everybody: the "Health=Tasty" French Intuition.” Food Quality and Preference Available online August 2, 2012, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2012.07.007