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Can Variety Help Increase Veggie Intake?

Can Variety Help Increase Veggie Intake?

Shoppers and Trends

August 26, 2012

People eat more vegetables when they are served a variety of veggies than when they are served any single type, even the most preferred one, according to a recent study from Penn State University. The study, which looked at 66 participants from Penn State and the local community, found that filling half the plate with three different vegetables increased vegetable intake in both men and women by more than one half serving. 

Results were published in the August issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Previous studies had looked at using variety as a means to promote intake of healthy, low-calorie-dense foods, but this was the first study to specifically test the effect of variety on intake of vegetables in adults. 

“The new dietary guidelines suggest that we fill half our plates with fruits and vegetables, and we can meet the challenge of getting people to eat that way by offering a variety of fruits and vegetables and reducing portions of meat and starch,” says Dr. Barbara Rolls, study co-author and author of The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet.

Interestingly, eating more vegetables had no significant effect on ratings of hunger or fullness either before or after the meal. And the amount of extra vegetables did not displace intake of the more energy-dense main dish, so the overall meal energy intake was not reduced. 

However, energy intake did not increase either. While it is possible that the amount of vegetables served in this study was not sufficient to displace energy intake of the main course, these findings are consistent with prior research that found that adding extra vegetables to the plate increased vegetable intake but not overall meal energy intake.

The importance of sensory-specific satiety cannot be underplayed here, as offering a variety of well-liked options with different sensory properties leads to increased intake, as demonstrated in this study. Here, researchers provided participants with vegetables that varied naturally in shape, color, taste and texture. Broccoli seasoned with butter was rated higher than snap peas and carrots in this study. Sensory-specific satiety plays a fundamental role in maintaining nutritional balance and ensuring dietary variety.

Portion size is crucial too, as vegetable intake in a meal is positively related to the portion offered. In other words, the positive effect of variety could be restricted if the portions of the preferred vegetables offered are too small. Researchers were careful in this study to offer adequate amounts of all the vegetables. 

Rolls says that retailers are in an excellent position to help convey this message of increased vegetable variety to consumers. Doing tastings of different fruits and vegetables, and presenting them in different ways, can get people excited about healthier eating and also introduce children to fruits and vegetables they may not have experienced before. Healthy eating incentives are a good tactic too.

“We need more creative ideas to get people to eat their vegetables. Variety is key, but I’d like to see rewards for consumers who eat healthy. Healthy food can be expensive so why not offer points toward healthy foods based on previous healthy food purchases? We have rewards cards for lots of other things, so having one for healthy eating would be a nice addition to the shopping experience,” says Rolls.

Rolls also points out that the taste and quality of some fruits and vegetables can be diminished by shipping and certain breeding techniques – that favor longevity above flavor, for example – which in turn leads to a lower consumption of these healthier items, especially in children. Consumers should be encouraged then, she says, to return produce that does not taste good or is spoiling so that retailers can make the appropriate changes and provide the best tasting fruits and vegetables they can.

Future studies in this area, adds Rolls, will focus more closely on specific strategies to get children to eat more vegetables.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation offers materials that grocers can use to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, including recipe cards, signage and content development tools. You can visit them here: