Some ‘veggie’ baby foods have more sweet fruit

Products containing fruit not only tasted sweeter than products that didn't have fruit but also had more fruit flavor and less vegetable flavors. (Credit: life is fantastic/Unsplash)

Some baby foods that claim to have loads of dark green vegetables may actually have a lot of sweet fruit puree—and not much vegetable content, a new study shows.

That matters because young children don’t learn to like the taste of broccoli, spinach, brussels sprouts, and kale, to name a few, unless they repeatedly try them, says John Hayes, associate professor of food science at Penn State.

So, if they don’t eat them early, they may not want to eat them later.

“Other research indicates young kids need to be exposed to the flavor of vegetables to learn to like them,” he says. “If true, this new work is key because it shows that current commercial products on the market fail to meet this need, as they cover up and hide the flavor of vegetables—even when vegetables are on the ingredient list.”

Because vegetables are an important but under-consumed part of a healthy diet, there is growing interest in promoting vegetable acceptance and consumption among infants to help establish life-long healthy eating patterns, says Hayes, director of the Sensory Evaluation Center in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Misleading content descriptions may fool well-meaning parents who want their young children to eat and like dark green vegetables, he says.

“If parents don’t stop and taste these foods themselves, the front of the package may lead them to think these products taste like vegetables rather than a fruit puree.”

Researchers on Hayes’ team conducted a survey of commercial baby food products in the United States and discovered a lack of variety in the types of vegetables offered.

Most notably, there were no commercially available single, dark green vegetable products. Instead, foods often mixed dark green vegetables with fruits or red/orange vegetables—such as squash—that provide additional sweetness.

For kids to learn to like the taste of vegetables, their flavors must be perceptible within the mixture, says Alyssa Bakke, staff sensory scientist in the food science department, who spearheaded the research.

The study was an effort to understand the sensory profiles of vegetable-containing, stage 2 infant products commercially available in the United States, and how ingredient composition affects flavor profiles, she says.

For the study, published in Appetite, the researchers performed descriptive analyses to quantitatively profile the sensory properties of 21 commercial vegetable-containing baby foods and one prepared in Hayes’ laboratory. Eleven experienced adult panelists, after 14 1/2 hours of training, rated all 22 products—in triplicate—for 14 taste, flavor, and texture attributes.

Products containing fruit not only tasted sweeter than products that didn’t have fruit but also had more fruit flavor and less vegetable flavors. In general, the first or majority ingredient in the product drove sensory profiles. Because few products had dark green vegetables as a first ingredient, dark green vegetable flavor was not prevalent.

“This suggests the sensory profiles of commercially available infant vegetable foods may not be adequate to facilitate increased acceptance of green vegetables,” Bakke says. “This is a huge concern right now—how can we promote the liking of vegetables? From infants to adults, people tend not to like vegetables.”

There are understandable reasons why some people don’t prefer vegetables, Bakke says. They tend to be more bitter than other foods, and they tend to have less intense, more subtle flavors than most other foods. Sensory attributes that, unfortunately, are innate drivers of liking, she says, are salt and fat.

“Vegetables, of course, just don’t have those things, so we have to learn to like them, and sometimes we have to overcome things like bitterness,” she says.

“The number one way we do that is just repeated trial—trying it over and over and over again. If this is done early on, we can prepare people to have a liking for vegetables throughout their whole lifetimes.”

Additional coauthors are from the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Penn State. The US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture supported the work.

Source: Penn State