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How to Deal with Food Neophobia in Children

written by: Nicholas Kuvaas • edited by: jen2008 • updated: 9/26/2010

Food neophobia is the fear of novel foods. This can be harmful to children because it is related to less protein consumption and less fruit and vegetable consumption. This article discusses ways to deal with and alleviate food neophobia in children.

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    What is Food Neophobia?

    There are foods that people just don't enjoy or even want to try. They may be too exotic, look bad, smell bad, or their safety may be in question. There may also be other reasons, including preference and culture, for not trying new foods1. This aversion could also be due to the fear of food poisoning or otherwise harmful food. This fear of trying new or unusual foods is known as food neophobia. As stated earlier, this can be beneficial if it keeps us from consuming harmful foods that may make us sick or even kill us. However, when the aversion is towards fruits or vegetables, it can lead to a diet poor in healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables and high in less healthy foods. This is especially problematic for children who are still developing and need these healthy foods for proper development.

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    Ways to Deal with Food Neophobia in Children

    Food neophobia can lead to many bad habits and have poor consequences unless the fear of new food can be alleviated. However, if a child's diet is already varied and full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and the proper amount of milk, there may be no reason to change their diet unless a food is needed to fix a nutritional deficiency. If there is a specific food that needs to be consumed, the best way to do this is to mix the neophobic food with a favored food2. This process is called taste exposure. After discovering that the food doesn't taste bad, the fear of the new food should be reduced and consumption of it should increase.

    There is another way to increase the consumption of a feared novel food and relieve the fear associated with it. It is called the Premack principle3, and it uses a frequent behavior to increase a less frequent behavior. For example, if someone watched television frequently, you could use television watching as a motivation to complete homework. So, someone could watch television once they finished their homework. With food neophobia, it is best to pair the neophobic food with a frequent non-food related activity. This should also help a child to try to a food and, once this is accomplished, taste exposure has occurred, and the child will no longer be afraid of the food.

    The final possibility for dealing with food neophobia in children is to use modeling behavior2. Modeling behavior is simply demonstrating that the food, while unfamiliar, is enjoyable and not worthy of fear. By smiling and saying "yum", it shows that the food is enjoyable and simply eating it proves that it is safe.

    Another factor in food neophobia may be marketing campaigns aimed at children. To combat this, children's exposure to television programming should be limited to an hour a day, and television shows should be monitored to keep exposure to unhealthy food commercials at a minimum4. There is no research to confirm this connection to food neophobia in children, but food companies do advertise regularly during children's programming, and children are not able to distinguish between the advertising and the program until the age of 8 or later. The advertising tends to encourage the consumption of fast food and foods high in sugar content which may hinder consumption of fruits and vegetables.

    Food neophobia has been linked to a decreased consumption of fruits and vegetables, but there are methods to counteract it. These methods are taste exposure, modeling behavior, and the use of the Premack principle. Limiting exposure to television commercials may also help with reducing food neophobia.

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    Sources

    1. http://www.sensorysociety.org/ssp/wiki/Food_Neophobia/

    2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1557859/

    3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1404418/pdf/jeabehav00184-0045.pdf

    4. Nestle, M. (2003). Food Politics: How the Food Influence Nutrition and Health. University of California Press.