Since 2008 a group of scientists from University of California, Berkeley and California State University has been researching the results of a Slow Food taste education project in Berioza, Belarus, To the Origins of Taste. They collected both quantitative and qualitative data on how food and taste education classes organized by the local convivium in a secondary school influence children's thoughts and choices of food. The study found a reduced consumption of energy-dense foods such as potato chips and sodas due to increased health-awarness, changed taste preferences and peer influence. The study's quantitative findings were presented at Tufts University conference in Boston, Food Environment: The Effects of Context on Food Choice.
The field experiment was designed before the taste education classes started with a group of 125 students, age 8-15, during 2008/2009 academic year. It included two schools in Berioza where students attended the lessons, and one control school that did not participate in the project, necessary to validate the findings. In total, 360 students were observed over a 16-month period, from March 2009 until May 2010. Students and their parents answered questionnaires on their food consumption preferences and food-related choices before the implementation of the education project, during mid-evaluation, and at the end. Students in the participating school filled in daily food diaries writing down what they eat at school. In addition, 75 students were interviewed to better understand the factors influencing their food choices.
Belarus is becoming quickly influenced by western foods and convenience diet habits, although most of the participants or their relatives had a vegetable plot where they grew their own food. Berioza is a small town of 30,000 inhabitants, located in the southwestern region of Brest. The education project, inspired by the sensorial education kit "To the Origins of Taste", developed into a series of 40 lessons to improve daily food choices among students and promote local consumption through sensory education and hands-on experience. Groups of 10-15 students attended after-school classes taught by three school home economics teachers. They studied the senses, the origin and production methods of local and natural foods, their organoleptic and quality characteristics, learnt about nutrition, met with farmers and participated in cooking classes.
In interviews, students report that they reduced their consumption of energy-dense foods rich in fats and sugars (potato chips, sweets, chocolate, etc.) The quantitative data analysis provides support for these findings both in the survey responses and in the food diary analysis. For instance, students that participate in the lessons significantly reduced their stated preference for, and consumption of, soda. Health considerations were the main reason that students cited for this change. At the beginning of the project, chewing gum was also registered for lunch in food diaries, the explanation being: "I put it in my mouth so it is food".
The project changes taste perception and preferences of many students: "Potato crisps seem so salty and taste strong, that I can barely put them in my mouth... my body does not accept something when it tastes too strong. Before I used to eat and liked them, but maybe they produce them with a stronger taste now".
One of the teachers noticed: "Younger children change their food habits quicker, while older ones are more conservative." Children also believed that age influenced food preferences. According to them, younger or older students had less healthy eating habits: "We used to eat fast food because we were small", "older students eat more chips", etc. Convenience foods and soft drinks were associated with young people's consumption: "Everyone likes Coca-Cola, maybe only older people do not."
The students who took part in the educational intervention demonstrated health as a main factor in their food choices, citing (in descending order) 1) health considerations, 2) peer influence and 3) sensory preferences. The control group students were more taste-oriented. The following factors influenced them: 1) sensory preferences, 2) family influence and 3) peer influence. Taste or liking was the most frequently mentioned: "Food should be tasty", "The things I prefer, tasty ones". They were also more frequently attracted by food appearance, by "the color of sweets" or the "red packaging". Taste being the primary factor for the control group, the children compromised with convenience in preparing food: "something quick", "easy to prepare".
Children and adolescents did not chose their food influenced by one factor at a time, but engaged in negotiations between the factors, such as sensory preferences and a number of constraints that prevented them from eating their first choice option: "If the parents leave the money", "When I have time", "What is available at home", "What others like". Several negotiation patterns emerged from the interviews, between: a) taste and health, b) taste and family, c) taste and availability, d) taste and price and e) taste and convenience.
The students also mentioned a change of taste preferences, when they developed a preference for a product they did not like. The products that they did not like were cheese, potatoes and vegetables: "My taste changed. I did not like cheese, but we made sandwiches together. I tried a small bit and now I like it". A 12-year old boy said, "I like apples with honey. I did not like the taste before the project, but I know they are healthy".
An impact on peers and family through students was among the outcomes of the intervention: "My sister follows me in not eating foods with added chemicals". A parent of a 12-year old boy said: "We bought ready-made dumplings for dinner, and my son read the ingredients on the label. He said we could have them but he would rather not, so we threw them away."
The research study was supported by the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program.