Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It's Not Easy Eating Green

A reader sent me a recent article about methods used throughout history to get children to take their medicines.  While the piece focused on sweet talk and sweeteners, the biogeek in me was drawn to a comment about a new compound, GIV3616, that blocks the bitter taste receptors on the tongue.  A scientist from Givaudan Flavors, developer of this chemical, noted that for veggie-phobic children, "We’d like to be able to make their diets more enjoyable by masking the off-putting flavors of bitterness. Blocking these flavors we call off-notes could help consumers eat healthier and more varied diets."  I was dying to get a hold of this bitter blocker to sprinkle on my picky daughter's kale, but that would probably alienate those of you who eschew genetically modified, irradiated, non-organic, non-sustainable, non-locally produced Frankenfoods.  Besides, when I did a Google Scholar search on this compound, nothing has been published -- not even animal safety studies.  (I'm sure it's proprietary.)

It turns out there's a cheaper, low tech solution to increasing vegetable consumption in kids.  This week in JAMA, a psychologist, an economist, a marketing professor and two nutritionists walk into a bar published a study in which they placed photographs of vegetables in elementary school lunch tray compartments.  They measured vegetable consumption on a day when the trays had the photographs and compared it to a day when they didn't have the photographs.  These valiant researchers (or more likely, their undergraduate assistant in charge of "data acquisition") went so far as to scrape off and weigh uneaten vegetables left on the trays, tables and floors.

Does your kid's lunch tray look like this....

...or this?

So what did they find?  On the positive side, the percentage of children scooping green beans and carrots into those compartments went up from 6-12% to 15-37%, and overall consumption increased modestly.  On the downside, a lot of the kids left their veggies uneaten (in fact, more carrots were wasted in the photograph group), and even with the overall increase, consumption still did not meet government recommendations.  The study was also performed over a mere two days.  Kids will figure out in no time that no one's going to punish them if they scoop pudding into a green bean compartment.

As for me, I'll keep waiting for that magic bullet.  To the marketing geniuses at Givaudan:  hurry up, rechristen your license-plate chemical "Flavia," and release it to the general public. And  one more favor, if you please: Publish a study showing your bitter blocker won't make my daughter grow a third eyeball.*

*What's more likely is that she would grow more bitter taste receptors in response to chronic blockade.  (That's the mechanism by which people become tolerant to narcotics or alcohol).  If she were to suddenly stop using the chemical, she would be more sensitive to bitterness than ever before.


  1. Great post - interesting, relevant, and entertaining as usual!

  2. "As for me, I'll keep waiting for that magic bullet."

    Since we're discussing economists, you must remember their favorite line, "There is no such thing as a free lunch"! (personally, I think your bitter tolerance theory is likely). I'm much more an advocate of psychological solutions to such problems. Why is bitter yucky? Because we have habitually associated it to be that. I once hated coffee because it was so bitter. Then I decided I was going to "acquire" a taste for it. Now when I accidentally order a medium rather than dark roast, I think it tastes like water.

    Yucky-ness is a complex neuro-psyco-biological process that involves broccoli, taste buds and brains. Bitter stimulus is no more equivalent to yucky than noxious stimulus is equivalent to pain. After all, as one of my professors says, "The Strain in Pain Lies Mainly in the Brain."

    Also, "healthy food" generally requires time, thought and other ingredients before tasting good. Raw broccoli (as pictured) really doesn't taste great. But cooking requires time, and time costs money. It's much faster (cheaper) to fry a tater tot than toss a salad.

    "a psychologist, an economist, a marketing professor and two nutritionists walk into a bar..."
    Finish that thought!

    Great post!

    1. Thanks for your comments on my two picky eating posts. I completely agree that this is a problem seen only in industrialized nations.

      Making healthy food isn't really more time-consuming than making unhealthy food -- but it is, compared to buying unhealthy food. Michael Pollan argued that you can eat as much unhealthy food as you want, as long as you cook it yourself -- i.e., not opening a bag of frozen tater tots and tossing it in the deep fryer, but actually mincing the potatoes yourself, mixing in the binder and seasoning, shaping them by hand, and then frying them. Most people would give up and make themselves a salad instead.

      So why did you make the conscious decision to acquire a taste in coffee -- to survive med school?!

    2. I like Pollan, and from what I've read of him, I think I agree (at least I agree with his conclusions, if not always his pathway). Maybe food will only slow down when we do. So long as we don't have time to sit down and eat dinner, it will always be fast food.

      Regarding the coffee, it was in part out of an expected need for the stuff. The other part was seeing people get joy out of something that I could not; my friends had a different tongue. It was like being backwards to a sunset, always seeing the wonder in others' faces but never understanding why. So I decided to turn around.