All in Good Taste

| January 12, 2012

A headline on Salon.com asking, “Why is Georgia shaming fat children?” caught my eye this past week. The corresponding article reacted to a public health advertising campaign recently launched by the Strong4Life project. The group’s ads starkly highlight the individual plights of several obese children who are ashamed of their weight. Near the end of each commercial, a screen reading, “Stop sugarcoating it, Georgia…stop childhood obesity”, abruptly interrupts the subject. The effect is quite dramatic.

Like Strong4Life and many others, I agree that childhood obesity is a critical issue. However, I sympathize with criticisms of their chosen approach: shaming overweight children with the idea that “big is bad” is not a healthy method for encouraging the long-term lifestyle changes needed to manage weight loss. The group’s tactic largely propagates negative stereotypes surrounding a complex medical condition. Whether or not the campaign advances a widespread discussion of obesity is another issue, but I believe that there are more positive alternatives to accomplish this goal.

Source: L’association Eveil’O’Goûtx

Childhood obesity is a global issue that, according the World Health Organization, “is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.” I recently wrote about one of the small ways that the French government is supposedly responding by banning ketchup in its public school cafeterias. This is obviously not considered to be a solution, but part of a series of government efforts to promote better food choices. These methods are mixed, and according to their website, also include recommendations for preparing seasonal produce, information about the benefits of eating local and/or organic foods, and tips for encouraging children to eat their vegetables.

One particular initiative that is has gained government support, academic attention, and my own personal interest (as an American who doubts that my government would ever fund a similar project) is sensorial education for kids. This is to say that for the benefit of public health, several French institutions now support lessons that enhance children’s gustatory sensibility and curiosity. This approach insists that eating well over the long term depends on more than just ingesting a recommended number of calories. It also includes a lifelong development of interest, personal preference, and pleasure.

L-R: Examples of food used for an Eveil’O’Goût teacher orientation tasting; a French government label taken from the cover of the tasting classes training manual reading “Eating well: it’s for everyone!”; an example of a tasting class. Sources: www.eveilogout.com, www.alimentation.gouv.fr

I first encountered the idea of tasting classes for children when I moved to Dijon earlier this fall. In addition to its gastronomic reputation, the town is also home to the Centre des Sciences du Goût et de l’Alimentation (The Center for Taste, Food and Nutrition Sciences). The CSGA largely studies human eating behavior, and is host to several experimental programs including the Eveil’O’Goût group (roughly translated to mean “taste awakening”).

Eveil’O’Goût is the less than two-year-old product of a four-year study conducted by the CSGA that revealed beneficial effects of sensorial education on the eating habits of participating children. The motivation for the study (also known as the EDUSENS study) was the growing rate of childhood obesity in France, as well as a lack of satisfactory results from previous nutritional information campaigns. Instead continuing to simply advise children about what they should or should not eat then, the approach of Eveil’O’Goût project is to actively teach children how to fully taste and better describe both familiar (e.g. bread and yogurt) and less familiar (e.g. passion fruit) foods. Consequently, sensorial education tries to combat common childhood eating neophobia, initiate alimentary curiosity, and expand children’s gustatory perception and vocabulary beyond simply “liking” or “not liking” a certain food.

Source: Eveil’O’Goût

So how does Eveil’O’Goût pursue these goals while “awakening” the senses? The program has several different intervention curriculums that target both home and school environments of students. These courses do not focus on identifying right or wrong qualities of an individual’s personal taste. Additionally, no food is banned as off limits since this can stigmatize certain foods as being “bad.” Instead, all foods (in moderation) are considered to be important tools for the discovery and development of a holistic “taste” over the course of several topics including (taken from the book Les Restos du Goût: 12 ateliers-repas au restaurant scolaire by Aude Gaignaire and Nathalie Politzer):

  • Discovering the five senses
  • What is “taste?”
  • Sight and food
  • Olfactive sensations
  • A universe of taste
  • Tactile sensations and food
  • Pleasure and food preferences
  • Using all five senses as a guide for cooking
  • Discovering new tastes
  • Choosing food with all five senses

 Measuring the effectiveness of these methods is fairly difficult according to program manager, Aude Gaignaire. The group’s aims are admittedly qualitative, and the study of obesity is very complex. This being the case, Eveil’O’Goût’s focus is to facilitate the personal wellbeing of children by teaching them to take an interest in what they eat. In other words, they try to encourage children to constantly learn about, challenge, and accept their entire person by realizing their personal tastes and pleasure. It’s considered a success when a child shows signs of a more complex palette including an improved ability to describe tastes and greater openness to tasting unfamiliar foods.

An example of a tasting and cooking lesson in a New York City that applies ideas that similar to those of Eveil’O’Goût

When combatting lifestyle issues like obesity, we must wait to observe what combination of tactics will be most effective in helping today’s children maintain a healthy weight over the course of their lives. Raising awareness about the importance of food choices though – whether at school, in the media, or at home – must happen and should positively encourage change. I expect that building children’s self-acceptance and self-esteem (something that’s not easily accomplished with images that promote public humiliation) should also be part of goal if we are to see long-term improvement. And who can complain if achieving this aim tastes good, too….

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Category: Featured, Kids & Food

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  1. Belinda says:

    How I wish this kind of education was available here in the U.S…tasting classes anyone? We don’t give kids enough credit. Thanks for your perspective on these controversial ads and bringing to light a program that works!

  2. Melissa says:

    I think the Georgia ads were designed to be aimed at parents. As someone who teaches nutritional cooking classes to families, one of the biggest problems (if not THE biggest problem) in getting kids to eat better is the parent. Kids will try just about anything. However, what is reinforced at home is often a huge barrier.

    You are right that changing eating habits is a complex problem. The French program sounds like a great way to get kids interested and talking about food and taste. Hopefully, it will strengthen kids’ palates to the point that they whine to their parents for carrots instead of french fries. Until that happens, parents need to realize the effect of what they put on their kids’ plate.

    Great article! Great debate!

  3. Fantastic, very interesting article! This program is needed all across the “western” world. Teaching kids that new and different foods are exciting, rather than scary, is one of the most important battles in the war on obesity. Theresa

  4. Diana says:

    As others have said, I am fascinated with this idea of awakening the senses to forge a way towards healthy eating habits. If kids can taste the nuanced features of a bell pepper, for instance, and compare that to the blandness of a fried potato, they will be fascinated with healthy food. Awesome idea!

  5. Christine says:

    The Georgia does not seem like a constructive way to instill healthy habits, in fact it will likely cause a bunch of other problems. I think Alice Waters has done a good job of promoting programs from farm to table similar to Eveil’O’Goût. Now if we can only make it a broader project across America, we’d see a healthier country.