The Role of Food Aesthetics in Child and Adult Diets

Study assesses the significance of dietary variety for positive health

By Matthew Baral, ND, and Jessica Moore

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Reference

Zampollo F, Kniffin KM, Wansink B, Shimizu M. Food plating preferences of children: the importance of presentation on desire for diversity. Acta Pediatrica. 2011;101:61-66.

Design

Cross-sectional study aimed to determine the impact of food presentation and preferences for dietary diversity between children and adults

Participants

A child study and a parent-aged adult study were conducted. Child participants were 5–12 years old and were recruited from a children’s summer camp in Ithaca, NY (10 European American, 9 African American, 2 Hispanic, and 2 Asian American children). Participants in the adult study included 46 students and employees at Cornell University, 26 years of age or older. Twenty-five of the adults were women. 

Methods

Six dimensions of food presentation were categorized and 2–6 different images per dimension were presented to each individual. The dimensions included the following with regard to food items:
  • The number of items and mixing of colors
  • The number of different components
  • The position of the main component on an oval and on a round plate
  • A crowded versus an empty plate
  • An organized versus a disorganized plate
  • Food arranged in a figure design (eg, a heart shape) versus a casual design
Children were presented with the images at their summer camp on 3 different days to account for age-appropriate attention spans. They were then asked by a researcher, “Which is the picture you like the most?” Adults were presented with the same images via an online survey, and they too rated their most preferred options.

Key Findings

Children preferred a wide variety of foods and colors when compared to adults. An ideal plate for children appeared to contain food of 7 different items and 6 different colors, and they preferred the meals’ main component located in the lower right segment of round plates or the lower left segment of oval plates and food arranged in a figure or symbol design rather than a casual design. Adults seemed to favor only 3 different colors and 3 different food items. Adults preferred the meal’s main component located in the central right position on round plates and central position on oval plates as well as a casual arrangement of items versus a figure design. Both age groups selected plates with some degree of empty space as opposed to being crowded. The visual impact of presentation appears to have a more pronounced effect in children with regards to desire for dietary diversity.

Clinical Implications

The physical act of consuming and digesting food can begin visually. Merely looking at an image of food will result in a measurable physiological cascade of events, such as increased saliva production, increased insulin production, and changes in serum concentrations of other hormones like ghrelin.1 In other words visual stimuli directly influence the hormonal regulation of our eating behavior. Unlike adults, children are able to process isolated information from their individual senses, and therefore they may perceive the visual world (and their food, as it is a highly sensory-based concept) quite differently. In adults the inability to do this is known as “sensory fusion,” in which sensory information is combined into an overall impression.2 Previous studies have indicated that childrens’ perception of food qualities, such as flavor, texture, and even aroma may be influenced by the color and color intensity of a food.3,4 In fact, young children often rely more on the color of a food to make a decision about its taste than the actual flavor.5
To ascertain that children actually prefer a more diverse and colorful diet, compared to adults, could help to facilitate the adoption of more nutritionally diverse eating habits in children.
With this in mind, the significance of dietary variety is obviously important and supported by several studies that demonstrate how diverse diets are associated with positive health.6–8 In addition, a positive association between dietary diversity and child growth is internationally recognized.9 To ascertain that children actually prefer a more diverse and colorful diet, compared to adults, could help to facilitate the adoption of more nutritionally diverse eating habits in children. A 2012 report by the World Health Organization stated, “WHO aims to actively promote an increase in fruit and vegetable intake worldwide … Incorporation of fruit and vegetable consumption as part of national noncommunicable disease prevention and school health programmes is a central aim.”10 Fruits and vegetables are likely the most colorful and nutritious foods available. It is worth noting that the authors of the article state that preferences for the highest variety in both foods and colors of foods was most pronounced in the youngest children.
 
To introduce brightly colored fruit and vegetables for example at a young age, when it is apparently most visually desired, is to encourage lifelong healthy nutritional practices. Not only would one receive the benefits of fiber, vitamins, minerals, bioflavinoids, digestive enzymes, phytonutrients, omega-3 fats, etc., while they are growing and developing, but a varied diet may also reduce the risk of developing food sensitivities.11 This is a critical concept when one considers current reports from organizations such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suggest the rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years.12 Furthermore, if a child enjoys what he is eating, parasympathetic activity increases, therefore optimizing his ability to absorb and process the nutrients he consumes.
 
The limitations of this study are clear. The authors do state that further research needs to be done in order to assess whether preferences for pictures of food relates to actual eating preferences. It is our opinion that an adult would most likely base her picture preference on what she would actually eat, while a child may prefer the pictures based solely on aesthetics. Nonetheless, providing a varied and colorful diet to a child can only result in positive health benefits.

About the Authors

Matthew Baral, ND, received his naturopathic medical degree from Bastyr University, Kenmore, Washington, in 2000. He is chair of the Department of Pediatric Medicine at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences (SCNM), Tempe, Arizona, where he teaches pediatrics in the classroom and supervises student clinicians on clinical rotations. Baral designed the first naturopathic pediatric residency program in naturopathic medicine and serves as its director at SCNM. He is also the founding and current president of the Pediatric Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
 

Jessica Moore is a 4th-year naturopathic medical student at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine (SCNM). She holds a bachelor of kinesiology degree from the University of Calgary and in the past has been involved in clinical research on COPD. Currently, she is focused on research in immunogenetics and botanical medicine at Arizona State University in affiliation with SCNM. As a passionate student of the art and science of naturopathic medicine, she believes that research is an important contribution to naturopathic medical practices today.

References

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2. Nardini M, Bedford R, Mareschal D. Fusion of visual cues is not mandatory in children. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Sep 28;107(39):17041-17046.
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6. Arimond M, Ruel MT. Dietary diversity is associated with child nutritional status: evidence from 11 demographic and health surveys. J Nutr. 2004;134(10):2579-2585.
7. Hatløy A, Torheim LE, Oshaug A. Food variety—a good indicator of nutritional adequacy of the diet? A case study from an urban area in Mali, West Africa. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1998;52(12):891-898.
8. Moursi MM, Arimond M, Dewey KG, Trèche S, Ruel MT, Delpeuch F. Dietary diversity is a good predictor of the micronutrient density of the diet of 6- to 23-month-old children in Madagascar. J Nutr. 2008;138(12):2448-2453.
9. Ruel MT.Operationalizing dietary diversity: a review of measurement issues and research priorities. J Nutr.2003;133(11 Suppl 2):3911S-3926S.
10. The World Health Organization. Promoting fruit and vegetable consumption around the world. Available at http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/fruit/en/index2.html. Accessed March 5, 2012.
11. Bahna SL. Management of food allergies. Ann Allergy. 1984;53(6 Pt 2):678-682.
12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity facts. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm. Accessed March 5, 2012.