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Less fatty, less salty and less sweet foods….. but are they consumed less by children?

The guidelines laid down by the French National Nutrition and Health Programme (PNNS) strongly encourage companies in the agri-food industry to review the formulations of their products, and particularly to reduce the contents in sugar, salt and fat. What are the effects of these reductions on taste perceptions, and ultimately on consumption? Scientists in the Joint Research Unit Centre for Chemical Senses and Eating Behaviour (CSGA: Centre des Sciences du Goût et de l'Alimentation) have focused on this tricky question, specifically with respect to young children. Although reductions in sugar and fat contents did not seem to affect their intake, reducing salt levels did. Therefore, the more salt is present in a food, the more children will consume it.

Repas familial.. © INRA, MAITRE Christophe
Updated on 05/31/2013
Published on 02/14/2012

Launched in 2001, the French National Nutrition and Health Programme was a public health initiative designed to improve the health status of the population by acting on one of its principal determinants: nutrition. Under this plan, nine priority health objectives were defined, supplemented by ten "specific" objectives. These included reducing the mean contribution of total lipids to at least 35% of daily energy intake, reducing current simple sugar consumption by 25% and reducing the mean daily salt intake to less than 8 g per person. These reductions might be simple on paper, but in practice they mean that the food industry needs to reformulate its products which, in addition to being a technological "headache", is also not without having an impact on their taste.

And, for children, even more than for adults, taste is an important factor for acceptability. Hence the questions raised by the CSGA scientists regarding the effects of changing the salt, sugar and fat contents on the acceptance of common foods by toddlers (with an average age of 30 months).

During a study performed in partnership with three nurseries in Dijon, 74 children consumed a fixed menu every other week over several weeks. From one meal to another, the salt, sugar or fat contents varied in one of its components. Differences in terms of added salt (0, 0.6% and 1.2%), added butter (0, 2.5% and 5%) were applied to pasta and green beans. Differences in terms of added sugar (0, 5% and 10%) were applied to unsweetened fruit purée. The consumption of each food by each child was measured by weighing the portions before and after the meal.

The results indicated a significant impact of salt content on the quantities consumed: by comparison with the usual salt content of 0.6%, removing salt caused a reduction in the consumption of green beans, while increasing the salt content resulted in an increase in the consumption of pasta.

By contrast, changing the fat content did not have any impact on the consumption of these foods. Similarly, varying the sugar content in the compote did not affect consumption.

This study showed that an opportunity exists to reduce the sugar or fat contents in foods for children without this change having any negative impact on their consumption. As for reductions in the salt content, this may be more difficult to implement, notably in foods that are little appreciated by children, such as vegetables. In this case, different strategies could be envisaged: a gradual reduction or a modification of other sensory characteristics that could compensate for the reduction in salt by changes to raw materials, cooking methods or recipes, etc. This work is being pursued by studying, firstly, the impact of sugar and fat contents in other model foods, and secondly, the impact of the salt content on consumption in older children and on immediate sensory preferences. A greater impact of salt on immediate preference (as it is generally measured during consumer studies) than on consumption may lead to sugar, salt or fat contents that are higher than those necessary to ensure consumption of the food.

Scientific contact(s):

  • Sophie Nicklaus UMR Centre des Sciences du Goût et de l’Alimentation – CSGA, INRA, 17 rue Sully, 21065 DIJON CEDEX, France
  • Sylvie Issanchou UMR Centre des Sciences du Goût et de l’Alimentation – CSGA, INRA, 17 rue Sully, 21065 DIJON CEDEX, France
Associated Division(s):
Nutrition, Chemical Food Safety and Consumer Behaviour
Associated Centre(s):

Find out more

  • The impact of salt, fat and sugar levels on toddler food intake. S. Bouhlal, S. Issanchou, S. Nicklaus. British Journal of Nutrition. (2011), 105: 645-653.