Popular mythology suggests that children do not like whole grains, which are essential to a healthy, well-balanced diet.
But a new study from the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) finds that if offered whole grains, children will eat them.
And enjoy them.
The 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans call for at least half the grain consumers eat to be whole grains. They urge adolescents to consume five to seven ounces of grains daily, with at least half being whole grains.
National surveys indicate that children consume far less than that, averaging only about one ounce, or the amount found in a single slice of bread.
USDA guidelines for school nutrition programs during the 2012-13 school years increased whole grain requirements. During the 2014-15 school year, USDA requirements for reimbursable school meals state that all grains must be whole grains, which USDA defines as at least 51 per cent. That will increase to 100 per cent over the next few years.
During the UF/IFAS study, participating children and their families were given refined-grain or whole-grain pasta, rice, bread and other foods to eat at home. And they were given whole- and refined-grain snack foods to eat at school.
Researchers interviewed students weekly to see what fruits, vegetables and grains they had eaten in the past 24 hours. Before the study, participants were eating about one ounce of whole grain per day. During the study, students in both groups reported eating more than six ounces each day.
Snacks served at school were the most popular whole grain foods.
The timing and finding of the study are important, said co-author Bobbi Langkamp-Henken, a UF professor and registered dietician.
First Lady Michelle Obama is now leading a large to promote the consumption of more whole grains by children, Langkamp-Henken said.
“And a lot of people say students won’t eat them. But our study shows that they well. If you offer them whole grains and encourage them to eat them, they will eat them. We’ve changed our dietary guidelines to encourage people to eat more whole grains. Now we need to get that message out. And we need to explain why people should eat more whole grains. And we want parents to know that if you offer them to your kids and encourage them to eat them that they will.”
Wendy Dahl, a UF assistant professor in the food science and human nutrition department, another co-author of the study, along with former graduate student Allyson Radford, noted that actual awareness among kids that they are eating healthier foods is not a requirement for success.
“In our study, I don’t know how aware the kids were that they were eating whole grains,” Dahl said. “Children eat things that they like. For example, if they’re eating a whole wheat pizza crust, they’re eating it because they like it, not because they know it’s whole grain.”
In other words, Dahl said, if the goal is to get children to eat more whole grains, all that matters is that they’re in the diet and they’re eating them. The mission is accomplished simply by offering healthier foods and having children enjoy them.
Meanwhile, Dahl said, the quality and flavor profiles of whole grain products have been greatly improved.
“Over the last few years, ever since the new dietary guidelines came out to make at least half of the grains you consume whole grains, there has been a tremendous movement to increase the amount of whole grains in the food supply. And the food industry responded by changing the formulation of many of their products. For example, General Mills moved to make virtually all of their premier breakfast cereals whole grain.”
What’s the next step in the process of motivating children to eat healthier diets?
“The home environment needs to change,” Dahl said. “We’ve made great strides in terms of the school environment. But if we want children to eat healthy diets, that’s not limited just to whole grains. That includes fruits and vegetables and enough dairy. If we want to achieve that, the home environment needs to change. And I don’t really know how we’re going to accomplish that.”
For example, she said, human nature dictates that many parents buy only the foods they like to eat, without specific regard for health considerations or benefits. And if they buy relatively unhealthy foods, that is what their children also eat.
“Increased knowledge is one thing,” Dahl said. “But changing behavior is quite another.”