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Getting Kids to Eat Right: Green Ketchup and Other Tricks

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WebMD Health News

Nov. 10, 2000 -- Moms who once battled for Beanie Babies are now grabbing for green ketchup. From all reports, Heinz's somewhat shocking new product is flying off store shelves faster than a Furby at Christmastime. And if it gets kids to eat something they abhor, why not? A new study puts data on a phenomenon that parents have long suspected -- that kids might try a new food if they can dunk it, dip it, or otherwise drown out the flavor.

Fear of unfamiliar foods -- food neophobia -- likely kept Adam and Eve from poisoning themselves when grazing amongst the brambles and berries, says the study's author, Patricia Pliner, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. But in today's supermarket world, it's time we got over it, Pliner tells WebMD. "Humans are omnivores -- we can eat anything and everything."

In fact, in more modern times, the characteristic seasonings used in Chinese, Italian, Korean, and other foods might have developed to combat food fears, says Pliner. "Some theorists believe that cultures around the world have used food flavorings to introduce unfamiliar food staples into the local cuisine," she tells WebMD.

Could the same theory work with kids, the most fearful of all omnivores? In a study appearing in a recent edition of the journal Appetite, Pliner puts the theory to the test.

Pliner's study focused on chips and dips -- specifically, variations on a typical sour cream-onion dip. One variation was tinted pink, and its flavor modified by a bit of ketchup. Another variation was tinted yellow and honey was added. Chocolate syrup was used as a third dip option. The fourth was plain sour cream-onion dip.

She recruited 32 children -- all girls, all 10 to 12 years old -- and put them through a series of taste tests involving five different kinds of chips -- four that were familiar (plain rippled and nonrippled potato chips, plain tortilla chips, and corn chips), and another that they had never tried -- "Snack Jacks," a Chinese fried green-pea chip.

Pliner found that kids liked the "new" dips -- and that after tasting the dips several times, the flavors became familiar to the kids. The children were also more likely to try the unfamiliar Chinese chip with one of the new ketchup- or honey-flavored dips.

"Appropriateness" is important to kids, she also learned. "Kids love chocolate, but they also know you don't eat chips with chocolate."

She challenges parents: "Experiment at home ... develop a flavor that your kid likes ... a dip or a sauce. Of course, dousing your kids' broccoli with ketchup isn't going to work, but you can find something else that does."

In terms of matching texture and major ingredient -- sour cream -- her test was within the culture's general culinary rules, says Pliner. "Ketchup-flavored chips are found on supermarket shelves, and honey (combined with garlic) is a common flavoring used with fried savory foods such as chicken wings and nuggets," she writes.

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