Nurturing the health of little ones through the pleasure of eating

Children’s healthy eating is about much more than just food itself. A whole host of other powerful influences is at work when it comes to driving children’s food preferences. Determining the nature of these driving forces has been the focus of research for Dr. Sophie Nicklaus, the 2018 winner of the new Danone International Prize for Alimentation (DIPA).

The driving forces that influence children’s food choices include social, psychological and cultural factors, collectively known as Alimentation. Through her research, Dr. Nicklaus has come to see Alimentation as fulfilling several functions:

  • Meeting nutritional needs
  • Providing pleasure
  • Building social bonds with family and friends
  • Defining individuals’ identity by creating a sense of belonging, for example, to a social, religious or cultural group.

Emphasis on pleasure

Dr Nicklaus’ research has shown that children learn to derive pleasure from food through their early eating experiences. If children learn to enjoy healthy food this way early on, it is more likely to become a habit that they take forward into later life (Nicklaus et al., 2004, 2005).

It’s not just enjoying the taste of food that’s important when it comes to associating food with pleasure. Dr Nicklaus sees three dimensions of pleasure associated with eating (Marty et al., 2018):

  • Sensory pleasure: Except for our innate liking of sweet foods, we learn sensory pleasure relating to food through our early eating experiences (Nicklaus 2016). From birth, babies can taste and smell foods – an experience that can take place through breast milk as the food eaten by the mother influences the flavor of her milk and thereby the baby’s preference (Mennella 2001, Cooke & Fildes et al 2011, Schwartz et al 2017). As infants grow, they will learn to cope with a variety of textures. By the age of 2 years, and probably before, they are fully equipped to enjoy all aspects of their eating experience.
  • Interpersonal pleasure: As well as the food itself, the context of eating is important (Marty et al 2018). Sharing healthy mealtimes with parents, siblings and peers can help children to learn to take pleasure in healthy foods, because it offers an opportunity to learn by imitation. Children as young as 1 year old learn which foods are preferred in their culture by watching and imitating people around them (Shutts et al 2013, Crowys et al 2015). Seeing family enjoying healthy foods in a positive, sociable environment reinforces and drives children’s own food choices in later life (Liberman et al 2016). Simply talking about the food being eaten – how good it tastes – has also been shown to be important for shaping a child’s enjoyment of mealtimes (Wiggins 2016).
  • Cognitive pleasure: children’s thinking about food may be influenced by cognitive processes (thoughts, ideas, images). Cognitive cues can add ‘extra value’ to foods – this is exploited in many advertisements of unhealthy foods. But adverts can also be used to cue healthy eating; and positive attitudes towards foods can be built during childhood. Hence children can enjoy healthy foods through their cognitive value, as well as their health value (Fernqvist et al 2014). Dr Nicklaus says public health campaigns should promote the pleasure of eating healthy foods and help guide parents to support their children’s pleasure of healthy eating in a positive social context.

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About Dr. Sophie Nicklaus 

Winner of the first Danone International Prize for Alimentation, Sophie Nicklaus is a Research Director at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, based at the Centre for Taste and Feeding Behavior in Dijon.

After gaining her diploma in agricultural science, Sophie soon developed her fascination with food and the influences that shape our food preferences. So she embarked on her career in studying children’s eating behavior and how it might be modified to steer children onto the right path to healthy eating throughout life.

Sophie’s PhD thesis at the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in Dijon was her first taste of studying the development of food preference in children. She conducted a cohort study in collaboration with a nursery school paediatrician in Dijon who was following the food habits of the children in the school. “He gave me free access to all his data — and told me I’d need a wheelbarrow to carry all of it!” Sophie recalls. “Being able to follow up certain individuals from childhood up to age 22 made it possible to understand how food preferences established in early childhood affect food behaviors through to early adulthood”. Sophie developed methods to assess the sensory qualities (taste and smell) of foods in order to understand their relationship with preferences and food choices. This expertise became the foundation for her future research projects.