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Is it "Healthy" or "Junky"?

a fast food burger and fries



"Drink your milk; it will help you grow big and strong," a parent tells her child. At what age are children able to correctly classify foods according to whether they are good for them or not?

Researchers at the University of North Carolina recently sought to find out (Appetite 2007:48(1);114-118) by recruiting 48 children (evenly divided among ages 3, 4, and 7) and 16 adults to respond to a simple questionnaire. For children, the questionnaire consisted of showing the child a labeled photograph of a food and asking them, "Is [insert name of food] a healthy food or junky food?" The 70 foods pictured ranged from an apple to cheetos and were presented in a random order. Similarly, the order of the words "healthy" and "junky" were also presented randomly.

After completing all 70 food classifications, the subjects were asked to explain why they had classified 3 different foods as healthy and 3 as junky. Their responses were grouped into three categories: nutritional food properties ("lots of vitamins"), health outcomes ("you get sick" or "makes you strong"), and miscellaneous ("I don't know," or "Turn into a corndog").

As one might expect, the ability to correctly classify foods as healthy or junky correctly increased with age. Three-year-olds fared the worst: their number of correct responses were only slightly better than random chance. Four-year-olds, however, correctly labeled foods as "healthy" or "junky" almost 75% of the time, while 7-year-olds did slightly better: 78% correct. What appeared to confuse children included junky foods made from vegetables (such as French fries) or meats (hamburgers, corn dogs), although grain foods (doughnuts, Pop-Tarts) also gave them difficulty.

Both children and adults tended to focus on the health outcomes of food when asked to justify why they had labeled a food "healthy" or "junky".

What this means for you

Children as young as three are already absorbing information about what foods are good for them. Give your child a head start by offering them healthy foods - especially for snacks. When they're old enough to understand, explain to them why those foods are good for them and why others are not. They'll learn to make good choices, especially if you do, too.

First posted: December 6, 2006