It's only fair to share…

The editors at Consumer Reports, recently posed the perennial question:

“How tasty are lunch box options when your children won’t eat fresh fruit?”

The answer, say the kids who recently taste-tested packaged fruit cups for Consumer Reports:

“It depends.”

Let me interrupt this fascinating bit of science for full disclosure: as a mother of two (one of whom was only rarely picky, the other a bottomless pit of imminent starvation), I feel compelled to say that any kid of mine who would dare to advise me that they “won’t eat fresh fruit” would be going hungry.

I’m wondering if modern parents are so blinded by marketing suasion (or so frightened of their offsprings’ pouty tantrums?) that the phrase “Eat it or you’ll get nothing!” is no longer as popular as it used to be in our family?

Or are modern children not being informed from infancy onward about the plight of millions of famine-ravaged Third World children as my generation was?

And are we so obscenely spoiled by this agro-business junk food/consumer culture of ours that we can afford to raise children who actually turn down food? I can guarantee you that no children in Somalia are turning up their noses at any food of any kind at any time.

Being a picky eater is an accepted luxury of the privileged.

Author and foodie Anneli Rufus, writing in her September 23rd Alternet column, reminds us that the idea of children being allowed to choose their own meals and/or mealtimes would have been shocking just a few decades ago, when “Eat what’s on your plate” and “Eat your peas or no dessert” were family dinner table mantras. She also cites Yale history prof Dr. Paul Freedman who laments the modern demise of this family dinner table:

“North American parents have a particular kind of guilt about the disappearance of family meals, and perhaps for good reason.”

Does this guilt help to account for the increased willingness of parents to tolerate and even cater to picky eaters? In fact, a recent University of Minnesota study found that children who habitually share family meals have:

  • improved nutrition
  • improved academic performance and interpersonal skills
  • reduced risk of eating disorders

Not that I ever forced any child of mine to eat, but I have to say that we were pretty strict, no-nonsense parents when it came to tolerating fussy eating behaviours in our home.

And for school lunches, I provided lots of healthy food options along with a colourful poster of the 1982 Canada’s Food Guide stuck on the fridge door.

Every school morning of their young lives starting at age six, my two kidlets  prepared their own packed lunches, having been well-trained that on every school morning, they’d need to consult the fridge poster to make sure their lunch boxes contained at least one fruit, one veggie, one protein, etc. I couldn’t care less what kind of fruit/veggie/protein they chose, as long as it all added up, and if they wanted to pack exactly the same lunch day after day after day, that was swell with me, too. (And, let’s face it; choosing their own lunch menus also reduced the temptation to trade Mum’s über-healthy homemade Tofu Surprise lunch for their classmate’s marshmallow creme-and-white bread sandwich later on).  After-school snacks were mostly big plates of raw veggies and yogurt dip or (their favourite) Ants-On-A-Log (celery sticks spread with peanut butter and dotted with raisin “ants”).

It’s truly amazing how many veggies a hungry little kid can consume after a hard day of learning to read and write…

What I really didn’t want to do back then was to start substituting the real food in our kitchen for expensive processed foods that the kidlets would then learn to prefer – like those 4-packs of fruit cups in this Consumer Reports taste-test. Because once you start substituting, it can be very hard to go back.  It’s like being the first one in the family to mow the lawn in your new house. You can never go back. Just don’t start in the first place . . .

But I digress. Four of the six fruit cup products tested here are packed in sugar syrup. Good grief. Why not just pack candy bars in your kid’s lunchbox?  Or are parents already doing that, too?

The Dole mixed fruit cup packed in light syrup, for example, contains 18 gm of sugar (plus zero fibre). That’s the same sugar content as a Little Debbie’s Chocolate Brownie. How could any parent convince themselves that the latter is junk food but the former is not?

Think fresh fruit is more expensive than those processed sugary fruit cups? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average cost of a child-sized serving of fruit or vegetable is about 25 cents. This is a pretty good deal – less than half the price of your average processed fruit cup.

And why am I utterly non-surprised to learn that what we once knew as just picky eating has somehow now become medicalized?

Yes, dear readers, it’s now called selective eating disorder or SED (also known as fussy eating or perseverative feeding disorder) – although most physicians admit that it is most often viewed as “a phase of childhood that is generally overcome with age”. 

But according to a report* in the Wall Street Journal :

“Children may not grow out of being picky eaters, however, and may continue to be afflicted with SED throughout their adult lives.”

Please note the WSJ‘s choice of that word “afflicted”. 

Trouble is, selective eating disorder currently lacks formal diagnostic criteria and classification, and is not currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly considered the ‘shrink’s bible’. The Wall Street Journal explained:

“Doctors once thought only kids were picky eaters, and that they would grow out of it. Now, however, a task force studying how to categorize eating disorders for the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in 2013, is considering recognizing for the first time a disorder to be called selective eating that could apply to adults as well as children.”

By the way, if you have a small child who’s normally a pretty good eater but occasionally hesitates at trying an unfamiliar food – well, it turns out there’s psychiatric terminology for that, too, and your kid probably needs to see a shrink.  This affliction is apparently called food neophobia, which is “an avoidance of the consumption of novel foods”.

Really? Seriously?

The new as-yet-unclassified disorder of selective eating disorder might just be entertaining as well!  After the website Psych Central posted a link to the Wall Street Journal piece about picky eating (oh, sorry, I mean selective eating disorder), their post attracted this reader comment in January:

“Hey Picky Eaters! I’m a casting producer for a TLC show about picky eating adults and we’re currently looking for adults with unusual eating habits and/or food addiction. For more info, please email us with your name, age, phone number, and brief description of your eating habits.”

But isn’t it dangerous to one’s physical health to spend years and years being “afflicted” with “selective eating disorder” like this? Not according to the University College London’s Institute of Child Health in the U.K.:

“Typically a child or adolescent with selective eating disorder will be within the normal range for both weight and height, and show no abnormality on physical examination.

“Eating a highly restricted range of foods is a common feature of toddlers – up to 20% of children below the age of five years experience this, and the problem persists to the age of about eight years in about a third of these children.”

But I digress, again.  Let’s return to the fruit cup dilemma. Here’s the trouble with asking kids any sort of taste-test questions. In a blind test, 28 children belonging to Consumer Reports staffers (minimum age 5) tried six fruit cups each.

At least one child said each was excellent—and at least one said each was horrible.

That’s what’s wrong with children. They’re so childish! On any given day, they will both demand carrots yet recoil in revulsion at the mere sight of carrots anywhere near their plates. Go figure. (My advice: just shrug sweetly, enjoy your own carrots, and calmly decree that anybody who has no room for carrots must, by extrapolation, have absolutely no room for dessert either. No negotiation, no discussion, no whining. It’s not punishment – it’s just called logical consequences. Very, very soon, kids catch on).

And even for those taste-tested packaged fruit cups that earned the most positive reaction overall in this study (Walmart’s Great Value Mandarin Oranges in Light Syrup), over half of the children surveyed reported that, while they might eat it for school lunches, they would NOT eat this stuff at home. Which means that those packaged fruit cups might just end up being a form of useful trading currency at lunch hour.

Here are some of the astute comments from these pint-sized taste-testers:

  • “Fruits did not taste good together.”
  • “Tastes weird.”
  • “Too many different flavours.”

You rarely get these kinds of taste-test criticisms when kids eat a real apple.

* Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2010, “No Age Limit on Picky Eating” by Shirley S. Wang.


Reproduced with permission from The Ethical Nag: marketing Ethics for the Easily Swayed by Carolyn Thomas – Carolyn has over 37 years experience in journalism marketing and public relations.She has a particular interest in medical research and Big Pharma marketing issues.

The original article appears here