Sensory education in the schools: Taught to become a Gourmet?

Sensory education can have an impact on food choice (Picture: © Galina Barskaya -

September 2010 - Can children be taught to become gourmets? The connoisseur country of France has a sensory education program for 8 to 10 year old school children that in the truest sense of the word wets their appetite. The children are given 12 lessons in which a variety of practical exercises and theoretical concepts  are employed that  teach them to use all five senses in context with their involvement with food. In doing so, they learn how to differentiate between food qualities and thus have a deeper appreciation of what they eat. Can such lessons also influence their preferences?

Earlier studies have indicated that some effects can be achieved through sensory education programs. For instance, Neophobia (the fear of new or unfamiliar culinary experiences), which causes so many children to react so squeamishly, is reduced, at least for the first several months after the lessons. Children who participated in the program were able to describe the sensory properties of the food better and their interest in the quality of the foods increased.

Were their preferences measurably altered through the sensory education? Did the program improve the children’s ability to develop a sense of taste discrimination in a similar way to programs designed to improve reading and mathematical skills? These questions interested ESN researchers from the Centre for Food and Taste Science at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in Dijon, France, and the Centre for Innovative Consumer Studies (CICS) in Wageningen, The Netherlands.. They examined whether the school program shifts preferences from simple flavour and intense basic taste variants to more complex flavour and weaker basic taste variants. For this purpose, they used food models of variants differing in basic taste intensity and aromatic complexity. In the process of its development, a child gradually changes preferences, and the interest in new and more stimulating taste experiences begins to grow.

In order to examine whether this development can be cultivated specifically, the researchers compared the children’s reactions to foods differing in arousal potential (intensity and/or complexity) at three specific points in time:

  • immediately before a sensory education program in which half of the children in the test group participated,
  • directly after the completion of the sensory education program, and
  • 10 months after the program.

Perception of complexity

The researchers served the children three test foods of varying aromatic complexity and basic taste intensity: mashed potatoes, drinkable yoghurts and compotes. The simplest variety of mashed potatoes consisted of potatoes, the more complex varieties were  a mixture of potatoes and celery, or a combination of potatoes, celery, and nutmeg. The drink yoghurt variations included grapefruit, grapefruit and orange, or grapefruit, orange and peach. The compotes consisted of apple, apple-mango, and apple-mango and ginger. With regard to basic tastes, the mashed potatoes also differed in saltiness, the drink yoghurt in bitterness and the compotes in sweetness.

In order to check the perception of the formulated models, another group of children participated in a preliminary session.
In the first preliminary test session the children were asked three questions: which sample did they know the best, which sample was the most intense, and which sample had the largest number of tastes.
In the second preliminary session, with the help of  basic taste solutions, the children were first taught to recognize the basic taste (salty, sour, bitter, sweet) of the products they would later evaluate. Next, the children were given pairs of products to sample and then asked which one of the two samples was the most surprising, and which one was more sweet/salty/bitter/sour.

The influence of Sensory Education

The main experiment sessions were held at lunchtime together with the participants’ classmates (an education group that followed the lessons and a control group each consisting of 100 children). The researchers first served the children three meatballs with three different tomato sauces. Next came five samples of each of the three test products (potato, drink-yoghurt, compote). The children were asked to rate their liking of each sample on a seven-point scale.

The hypotheses  of the researchers were only partially verified: a factor analysis showed that the children of the other group for the most part perceived the flavour complexity and taste intensity differences of the mashed potatoes and compote, as had been expected. The complexity had a stronger effect on the food’s arousal potential than the intensity. This result had also been anticipated. With the drink yoghurt it was the other way around: here the taste intensity had a stronger impact on the arousal potential than did the flavour complexity. Project leader Caroline Reverdy assumes that this is caused by the bitter grapefruit aroma: “clearly the children were sensitive to the bitterness, for which an inborn aversion exists, and this had a strong influence on their responses.”

The hypothesis of the researchers that the children who had not received the sensory education would prefer the more simple food variants was found not fully supported by all the data. Reverdy states that, “There was a preference for less arousing variants  with the compotes and drink yoghurts. With mashed potatoes of the same flavour complexity, the more salty variants were preferred, and when there was the same level of saltiness, the aromatically  less complex variants were preferred.”

As has already been indicated, the more complex mashed potatoes and compotes were found more appealing in the second than in the first test – and to Reverdy’s surprise, this not only held true for those who had had the sensory education, but also for the control group that had had no sensory lessons. Reverdy concludes that, “Only a few exposures to the more complex stimuli sufficed to improve the liking for more complex food variations. Since the improved liking occurred in both groups, these changes were clearly caused by the mere exposure to the complex stimuli, and not by the sensory education.”  There was no significant difference between the acceptance of the simple and complex drink yoghurt variants: in the second test once again the less bitter variations were preferred. Reverdy conjectures that, “This is probably caused by the grapefruit taste: regardless of whether or not they have had sensory training, children dislike bitterness.”

Long term effects

That the sensory education classes nevertheless had made an imprint only became apparent at the third sensory test session ten months after the sensory education. Then the liking scores for complex mashed potatoes and compotes were higher than by the second test; however this was only true for those who had participated in the sensory education courses. “The sensory education program apparently had a long-term effect on the development of a liking for more complex foods. This refutes the assumption that these effects are merely the results of age-related development. Otherwise, we would have had a similar development occur with the children in the control group,” was Caroline Reverdy’s conclusion concerning the results. “The example of the yoghurt with the grapefruit taste shows that such stimulatory effects may not be very stable, and can be easily disturbed by other influences such as the unpleasant bitter taste in this case.”

Why did the education program have only a delayed effect? Reverdy believes there are several explanations: “It is possible that the sensory education has made the participations more receptive to trying new foods. It could also be that since they had developed a better vocabulary with which to appreciate the food, they could more easily grapple with its subtleties. Perhaps it awakened their interest in the interplay of complex sensory impressions. It could be that the children now talk more often with their peers about food and therefore are more interested in new experiences.” Reverdy also speculates that the influence of the teacher who had led the sensory education program and continued to teach the class after the end of the program also comes into play. At any rate, the long-term effects speak for this type of educational method, which ultimately has the objective to teach children to become well-informed, quality-conscious consumers.

(isi / esn)

Reverdy C, Schlich P, Köster EP, Ginon E, Lange C:
Effect of sensory education on food preferences in children
in: Food Quality and Preference
Volume 21, Issue 7, October 2010, Pages 794-804

Original publication in French