Vegetables are commonly among children’s least liked foods, while sweet-tastes are preferred from the outset. These preferences are reflected in children’s diets with children in the UK and other European countries eating too few vegetables and too many sugary foods. Evidence suggests introducing vegetables early in life may have important implications for future health. It is possible to learn to like foods, such as vegetables, simply by trying them on multiple occasions. Older children (or adults) may need to try a food 14 times or more before they begin to like it but infants are particularly accepting of new tastes. This makes the weaning stage is a key period for learning to like a variety of different foods.
As part of the European HabEat project we conducted an exploratory trial investigating the impact of advising parents to introduce of a variety of single vegetables at the very start of weaning. Pregnant women or mothers with infants less than 6 months old were recruited from healthcare settings in the UK, Greece and Portugal. Mothers and their infants were randomized (allocated by chance) to either an intervention group or a control group, ensuring there were equal numbers of breast-fed and formula-fed infants in each group. Intervention mothers were visited before they started weaning and were given advice on introducing five vegetables (one per day) as their baby’s first foods, repeated over 15 days. After the first 15 days, intervention mothers were told to continue to offer vegetables but also to start introducing other age-appropriate foods such as fruit. Mothers in the control group received standard care, which varied from country to country. For example, UK recommendations are to introduce fruits, vegetables and baby rice or cereal as first foods, but the information provided to mothers is inconsistent and access to advice may vary by region.
Taste tests were conducted one month after the start of weaning. Intervention and control infants were fed unfamiliar vegetable (artichoke) and fruit (peach) purées and a researcher recorded how much of it they ate (g) and how much they appeared to enjoy these foods. When the results for the UK, Greece and Portugal were combined (n=139) the children who took part in the intervention, and ate a variety of vegetables for the first 15 days of weaning, had not eaten significantly more of the unfamiliar vegetable purée than the children from the control group. However in the UK, intervention children ate almost twice as much of the unfamiliar vegetable compared with control children whose parents were not advised to offer vegetables as first foods (32.8g vs. 16.5g). UK mothers and researchers also rated intervention infants’ as liking the vegetable more. Whereas in Portugal and Greece there was no significant effect of the intervention on infants’ intake of or liking for the vegetable. In all three countries, there was no difference between groups in the amount of fruit purée children ate or how much they seemed to like it.
These results may be partly explained by variation in existing weaning practices across Europe. Common first foods given to UK infants include fruits and ‘baby rice’. Vegetables, particularly green or bitter tasting varieties, are offered less frequently. When they are introduced vegetable purées are often combined with fruits such as apple or pear, sweetening the food and potentially masking the vegetable flavour. In contrast vegetables are regularly offered as first foods in Portugal where vegetable soups are a common weaning food. These differences may be reflected in later dietary patterns as Portuguese school-children have some of the highest levels of vegetable intake in Europe.
The findings of this study suggest that repeatedly offering a variety of vegetables to infants at the start of weaning may work to increase vegetable acceptance in countries where vegetables are not already given as first foods. However, we don’t know yet whether this effect will last throughout toddlerhood and into later childhood, so this will need to be explored in future studies.
Reference: Fildes A., Lopes C., Moreira P., Moschonis G., Oliveira A., Mavrogianni C., Manios Y., Beeken R., Wardle J. & Cooke L. (2015). An exploratory trial of parental advice for increasing vegetable acceptance in infancy. British Journal of Nutrition. journals.cambridge.org/bjn/vegetabletrial