Dietitians weigh in as Study Says Kids' Food Knowledge Gap Could Impact Climate

August 26, 2022

According to a new study, kids don't know where some of their favorite foods come from. However, some dietitians believe that age may be the only factor contributing to some of the uncertainty. Here are the opinions of three dietitian nutritionists on the study and their observations on age-appropriate nutrition knowledge.

About The Study

In the United States, 176 urban, racially diverse children between the ages of 4 and 7 were subjected to a test to determine their acquaintance with the origins of both plant-based and animal-based foods. They also assessed their knowledge of edible and inedible objects.

Children were instructed to place laminated cards with either plant-based or animal-based items into one of two compartments. A similar procedure was used to distinguish between edible and non-edible meals: one box was covered with imitation leaves and green felt for plant foods, while one box was coated in fur for animal foods. Children were instructed to place laminated cards into a plastic mouth for edible items or a miniature trash can with a swinging cover for inedible ones.

According to their study, researchers found that 4- and 5-year-old kids frequently struggled to correctly identify the sources of foods containing animal products. Researchers also stated that this finding suggests there may be a connection between the perceived knowledge gap exhibited by the data and a child's predisposition to have more plant-based eating preferences. They speculated that children have a strong bias against the belief that animals are not OK to eat.

What Dietitians Say

Although the study's premise is intriguing, some dietitian nutrition experts wonder whether it actually demonstrates a knowledge gap or whether this age group's uncertainty about whether food comes from plants or animals is the norm. Additionally, some dietitians are troubled by the study's approach.

"For the sorting task of OK and not OK food selection, I think this is a flawed data collection approach," says Dustin Moore, MS, RD, a lecturer and program coordinator for California State University Long Beach and public health doctoral student for the University of California Irvine. "They conducted this test and determined that kids failed to identify certain animals as food sources. But the question they are asking makes me wonder if kids actually understood this concept."

Moore states that the scientists wanted to see if they could eat something. They might not have considered the fact that small toddlers sometimes interpret things literally and wouldn't believe it was acceptable to consume a whole cow, chicken, or pig.

"We eat products from these animals, not the whole living animal themselves," he explains. "I don't know if kids this age can grasp this concept. A better question to ask may have been, 'Can these animals provide us with food to eat?'"

Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT, aka the Food and Movement Dietitian, is worried that researchers may be going too far by claiming that the data shows moral decisions.

"The age group in this study of 4 to 7-year-olds isn’t necessarily inclined to make food choices based on ethics," Enright explains. "At this age, the taste is the leading driver of preferences. If the goal is to get children to eat more plants, then children need to be offered more plants during meals at home."

The study's authors claim that cattle are the main cause of climate change, but Moore argues the evidence is flawed

"I'm going to repeat this until I'm blue in the face," Moore says. "You are not solving emissions problems via agriculture. Best estimates of greenhouse gas breakdown show that agriculture is just 11% of total emissions. Keep in mind, that [number represents all] agriculture. If you stratified this by sector, animal agriculture would be even smaller. The figure cited in the paper (14.5%) is from a now-debunked study that used erroneous measures to calculate emissions in the transportation sector."

Elesha Ergle, RDN, LD, raises concerns about the climate change section as well as the possible cause of kids' ignorance of the origins of their food. She suggests that the U.S. as a whole has minimal exposure to farming rather than making a moral judgment about whether animals should be eaten.

"In the U.S., most people are far removed from family farms [only 2% of the U.S. population is in agriculture], which would be the ultimate reason for lack of knowledge and understanding of basic farming or where foods come from," Ergle says. "We are now in a generation of children whose parents have never had any working knowledge of agriculture."

Ergle claims that the researchers' assertions that children's dietary decisions may have an impact on climate change worry her as well. She claims that a research revealed that eliminating animal agriculture would have a negligible effect, with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of only 2.6% in the United States and 0.36% globally. She also thinks it may be too much to expect individuals to modify their eating habits in order to have an impact on climate change.

"With so many children in the U.S. with food insecurities [55% of the children used in the study were from low-income households], placing the burden of climate change upon the shoulders of our children's food choices is a stressor that they should not have to bear," she says. "Our goal needs to be to educate adults and children on the sustainability of animal agriculture and the quality nutrition that comes from eating a variety of foods, including both animal and plant products."

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