Research conducted at Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association (CCFRA) indicates that improving children’s knowledge about food does not necessarily mean they will adopt a healthy lifestyle.

Children are a major market for the food industry and are also the forerunners of a potentially loyal adult market. However, their food preferences are very different to those of adults, and therefore, when developing new products for children, it is very important to find out what type of food they will be attracted to. It is also important to appreciate that individual preferences will change over a relatively short time frame (i.e., young children’s likes and dislikes will differ from those of teenagers) and that methods used to investigate these differences may also vary. At the same time, there are specific marketing and legislative constraints to consider, such as the pressure to create and advertise products that are seen as more in tune with a healthy lifestyle.

Many factors have been identified that affect children’s food choices. As well as biological and psychological factors, choice is affected by sensory characteristics, such as taste, appearance texture and preferences, and non-sensory factors, such as hunger, familiarity, family habits and feeding practices, peer pressure, schools and teachers, media and advertising, and product cost and availability.

Children’s diets have been shown to include a lot of high-fat, energy-dense foods. The liking of these particular food products has been attributed to children’s constant need for energy and the fact that, in many cases, higher fat foods are perceived to taste better. The over-consumption of these types of foods, coupled with decreasing levels of physical activity, has contributed to a rapidly growing obesity problem in much of the Western world. It is believed that obesity at an early age can persist into adulthood, which can subsequently increase the risk of obesity-related conditions later in life. It is also suggested that metabolic syndrome effects, cardiovascular disease and other conditions associated with being overweight and obese are more likely to be fatal when the person has been overweight or obese since childhood.

Although efforts have been made to try to improve children’s dietary habits and make them aware of the benefits of a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, most of these have not been very effective. In most cases, although the children involved showed improved nutritional awareness, improvements in eating habits were short-lived. Intervention actions, in which lectures were combined with exposure to selected food products, have been found to be more effective in improving children’s eating habits.

Researching Preferences and Perceptions

A review published by Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association (CCFRA) (“Issues in Children's Food Choices: Methods for Sensory and Consumer Research—Review No. 53”) highlighted many of the research methods that have been used with children to investigate factors that influence their preferences and eating habits and, most importantly, for the development of new products marketed directly to them.

Several studies have assessed the different ways of measuring children’s food preferences. Both quantitative (such as surveys, discrimination tests and preference testing) and qualitative (such as individual and group interviews and direct observation of what children actually do) techniques have been evaluated. These studies have shown that children are capable of expressing preference, when appropriate procedures and scales are used, although the appropriate technique will depend on the age of the children. Studies have also shown that children are capable of discriminating between different products, depending on the test method. Younger children understand pair-wise sample comparison (stating what is different between two samples) better than intensity ranking (in which they have to put samples in order based on a given parameter, e.g., sweetness of a drink).

Studies evaluating the descriptive abilities of children have been mostly inconclusive. Some researchers believe that adults should be used for generating the descriptive vocabulary, while others argue that the words that adults use for food attributes differ from those used by children. Children over the age of eight can be used to generate a vocabulary of specific food products, when appropriate procedures are followed. In one specific piece of research, children were shown a list of words and asked to choose which words best described the properties of the food product they were seeing. This study showed that vocabulary and number of word associations with food increased with age, although even younger children were able to come up with terms associated with a range of food attributes.

Generally, it can be concluded that children:

  • Have a natural preference for sweet foods and a dislike for bitter ones.
  • Enjoy flavor and texture variety.
  • Are attracted by colorful foods, fun shapes and colored packaging.
  • Can discriminate, especially in degree of liking.
  • Can show preference.
  • Can provide useful information about products.
  • Require special handling and different procedures from those routinely employed with adults.

    The following points should also be considered when carrying out research with children:

  • Be sure to communicate in a language that children can understand.
  • Familiarity between the child and the interviewer can be an advantage (this is not usually the case when conducting studies with adults).
  • Between the ages of 5-8, the cognitive development that takes place can differ significantly between children. This can mean that a particular technique may be fine for some of those taking part in a particular test, but not be understandable to others (or, at best, confusing).
  • It is important to have a familiarization game or test, or a training exercise, before the actual study. These tests can also be employed to evaluate children’s understanding of the procedure that will take place later and to separate children depending on their understanding, not only according to their age.

  • Healthy Food Choices

    A specific study was carried out at CCFRA with eight-to-ten-year-olds, to investigate how children are influenced by “healthy options” indications; this highlighted some very interesting findings. The notion behind the experiment was to use food labeling to help children make informed food choices and potentially change their eating patterns. The results showed that, when these children were asked to make a free choice, to choose exactly what they wanted (and were told that “no one was watching them!”), the use of a Healthy Options sign had no consistent influence on the choices made. In a subsequent part of the study featuring the same children, they picked healthy items when asked to do so, but those choices did not correlate with their initial selections. This suggests that, despite their knowledge about what the healthy items were within the options, they intentionally chose their preferred products.

    Behind many dietary campaigns lies the common belief that the more children are educated about foods, the more they will be able to adopt a healthy lifestyle. The results from this study showed that this may not be the case, and children may not put this knowledge into practice. Perhaps the emphasis on healthy and unhealthy diets is so intense nowadays that children have become saturated with information, resulting in disinterest with regards to healthy food messages. The importance of liking a food is not to be minimized, either. A lot of “healthy” products are perceived as being less appetizing and less tasty than high-fat, sugar-rich foods that are mainly associated with great flavors.

    The CCFRA study also investigated a specific technique for finding out what children would actually choose: the use of photographs in a simulated canteen environment. The children physically chose the photographs, as if they were real food, to make up their meal. This proved to be a very convenient way of performing the research: the technique was non-verbal and ideal to monitor food choice, without asking any questions. It created a friendly, yet structured, environment where the children were under minimal pressure from the experimenters and other children. The children seemed to be very relaxed in making their choices, which undoubtedly gives confidence in the quality of the observed results.

    The interaction between each child and the tested items was visual. It was thought to be more stimulating than presenting children with a list of foods that they would rate for liking. The investigators believe that this type of research could effectively be conducted with even younger children, as the task was easy to understand and simple and quick to complete (from a child’s point of view).

    From a purely technical perspective, this method was easily applicable with children and, importantly, easily replicable with minimal costs. It was easy to put in place, inexpensive and time-saving. By using images, the researchers avoided the logistical problems of testing with real food products, such as finding test locations with cooking facilities, dealing with food-handling, health and safety issues, etc. It also allowed the number of items tested (12 items in five food categories) to be larger.

    In summary, children are an important consumer segment, and their likes and dislikes should not be ignored by the food industry. In order to develop and market products effectively, it is necessary to use children in sensory and consumer-based tests. However, it is important to understand their limitations when designing the experiments, selecting the methods of research and analyzing data from these types of tests.

    Future research could concentrate on novel sensory and consumer research methods specifically developed for children. Several sensory methods already in use for research with adults should be evaluated to determine whether they could be modified for use with children.

    Chantal Gilbert is sensory and consumer research manager, Department of Consumer and Sensory Sciences at Campden, Tim Hutton is publications manager, Department of Corporate Communications at Campden, Review 53 (“Issues in Children's Food Choices: Methods for Sensory and Consumer Research”) is available from the Publications Officer at CCFRA. For more information, e-mail or visit Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association,