Scholar tackles the art and science of getting children to eat their vegetables

Schreyer Scholar and biobehavioral health senior Anna Canova wrote and illustrated several children's storybooks as part of a study to examine the effects of repeated exposure of preschool children to fruits and vegetables. Credit: Jeff Rice / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Anna Canova has loved vegetables all her life. But the Penn State senior and biobehavioral health major understands that getting many young children to eat their vegetables is no easy task.

The Schreyer Honors Scholar hopes to change that with both the work she’s doing on her honors thesis and for the Healthy Bodies Project, a food literacy program directed by  Lori Francis, associate professor of biobehavioral health, to introduce low-income preschool children and their families to new fruits and vegetables.

“This is the transition period, a time where kids are eating real adult food, and also being able to vocalize decisions about what they’re eating,” Canova said. “With the obesity epidemic starting earlier, preschool is a good foundational time where they’re starting to learn things in preschool, just learning everything about their life and ways to eat.”

Canova, under the supervision of Francis, has planned a study at a number of local schools to examine how repeated exposure to a target fruit or vegetable influenced preschool children’s perception and consumption of that fruit or vegetable —in this case, cauliflower.

Canova and other undergraduate research assistants will ask teachers in the study to question students on their basic knowledge of the vegetable and to have them try a small piece as part of a pretest. Then, she would come in to engage them in a lesson about cauliflower, using storybooks that she wrote and illustrated.

“Somehow, we discovered that she was an artist, and absolutely loved the artwork she did,” said Francis, who also plans to use Canova’s illustrations as part of a separate project that will partner with Weis Markets to set up advertisements on backlit whiteboards at produce displays, as a means of attracting both children and parents to taste and purchase produce. “She loves art. She wants to communicate art to children. When we talked about what her thesis should be about, I said, ‘You have to pull those two together.’”

Canova, who has a fine arts background, started doing little drawings of characters when she went on early classroom visits, and the students responded. 

“They would get really excited about the characters,” she said. “If they would see a character that liked broccoli, they would say they had to try it.”

Francis helped Canova develop simple, understandable language, and she tried to incorporate characters that preschoolers from a variety of different family backgrounds and ethnicities could relate to.

“What I tried to stick to was having a character that was relatable,” she said, “and having him go on this sort of adventure where he has to decide between the unhealthier path and the healthy path, and there’s all these different obstacles he has to go through.”

Canova’s thesis will examine the relationship between storybooks and children’s acceptance of vegetables, but she also realizes, in some instances, her goals are working against biology.

As part of the “pretest” section of the study, Canova will include Phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) testing, which involves putting a small piece of paper on a child’s tongue. The extent that they can experience a bitter taste indicates their genetic predisposition to avoid or reject bitter tastes. PTC chemically resembles compounds found in cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, or Brussels sprouts.

“Nontasters typically don’t taste the substance on the paper,” Francis said. “These are people who have no problem with more bitter tastes. Tasters have a little bit more problem, and can taste it, then there are supertasters who go crazy; ‘This is disgusting.’

“What research has shown is that people who are supertasters and tasters would be less likely to have a wide variety of vegetable consumption, or they may have a less healthy diet.”

Canova spent the summer teaching science and mural painting to ninth-grade students as a Fellow with the Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia program. She recently applied to Teach For America and to graduate school teaching programs as well as public health programs. She also is considering a career that involves art therapy.

“I have so many interests and I know at some point in my life they’ll all come together and be something beautiful,” she said.

Last Updated December 20, 2017