Hiding Vegetables in Other Foods Isn't Going to Make Kids Healthy

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The surprising results of a new study suggest that if kids are familiar with vegetables it makes no difference at all if you sneak them into food.

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Grind vegetables up and sneak them into the cookie dough. Does this sound like a clever way to get kids to eat their veggies? The idea is that kids will get the nutrition from the hidden veggies and never be the wiser. But another school has it that if kids are eating veggies largely unawares, they won't be any more likely to eat veggies later on in life, which is, after all, the real goal.

Previous research has found that food packaging affects how likely people are to select certain foods, and how good we think it tastes when we do select it. Some studies have shown, for example, that kids perceive foods in cartoon-laden packaging as tasting better than identical foods in plain wrappers. So a new study set out to determine how indicating on the label the veggies that were hidden in foods might affect taste perception in kids.

Researchers labeled one set of baked goods with the vegetable that was baked into them (for example, broccoli gingerbread spice cake), and one was labeled without the veggies (gingerbread spice cake). The trick, of course, was that both foods contained the vegetables. Separately, the kids had rated vegetables according to how many times they'd eaten them at home over the previous year.

Surprisingly, kids ranked foods containing broccoli and zucchini as tasting no different whether the vegetable was indicated on the label or not. This was an unexpected finding, since kids should theoretically say the foods tasted better "without" the vegetable. The exception was chickpeas. The kids said that cookies containing chickpeas were better when chickpeas were not indicated on the label.

The researchers suggest that the chickpea difference may come from the fact that they were also rated as being eaten much less frequently over the previous year, so it kids were less familiar with them. Kids often rate new foods as tasting less good than familiar foods. This is probably what was occurring here.

The results of the study offer some interesting evidence against the practice of sneaking vegetables in baked goods. If kids are familiar with the vegetables, it seems to make no difference at all whether you tell the kids they're there or not.

If you think your children need the extra veggie boost, perhaps it's best to bake familiar veggies into the sweets -- but tell them you're doing so. And continue to offer vegetables in their regular forms to kids at mealtime, to get kids in the habit of healthy eating. Kids learn by example, so enjoying veggies yourself, prepared in many different ways, is likely the best tact to take.

The study was carried out by researchers at the University of Vermont and Columbia University, and published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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