Starting from young: Zespri invests in research to cultivate higher consumption of fruits and vegetables in children

By Hui Ling Dang

- Last updated on GMT

A study by Zespri has shown positive effects of increased fruit and vegetable intake on children’s well-being. ©Getty Images
A study by Zespri has shown positive effects of increased fruit and vegetable intake on children’s well-being. ©Getty Images

Related tags Zespri New zealand Kiwifruit fruit and vegetables

Kiwifruit firm Zespri plans to shape future initiatives aimed at increasing awareness and consumption of fruit and vegetable (FV) based on findings from its recent study, which showed positive effects of FV intake on children’s well-being.

The nutritional benefits of FV to physical health are widely known, but almost one in two children globally are not consuming enough FVs, according to data cited by Zespri.

To explore the relationship between FV consumption and children’s well-being, the firm commissioned a feasibility study named the Feel Good Study conducted by researchers at University of Auckland, New Zealand.

“Zespri believes that early education increases the likelihood of children carrying healthy habits into adulthood, which directly influences their lifelong health. The Feel Good Study aimed to raise awareness of the impact and importance of nutrition on a child’s overall well-being, and to promote the cultivation of good eating habits from a young age.

“This study is a first step towards bridging the knowledge gap on the positive effects of FV on children’s well-being, and to provide evidence of the tangible benefits of FV beyond physical health,” ​Dr Paul Blatchford, Innovation Manager – Core Products at Zespri, told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

The study investigated the effects of a 10-week FV dietary intervention in 70 children aged between eight and 10 years. Both home- and school-based strategies were incorporated in the intervention.

The school-based session involved engaging students in interactive sensory experiences, complemented by the delivery of fruit boxes to build positive associations and encourage FV consumption during a school day.

At the same time, participating families were provided with weekly vegetable boxes, complete with recipes and tips on myriad FV preparation methods, with the aim of reducing food neophobia and fostering sustained consumption.

Results showed an 8% increase in total diet quality and 19% increase in vegetable intake in the children. In addition, the participants said that they were exposed to more varieties of FVs and became more adventurous with these foods.

Furthermore, a positive improvement to emotional well-being scores in a questionnaire was found in the intervention group, compared to a decline of that in the control group.

After the intervention, there was a 32% increase in parents or caregivers who chose low-fat options, and a 38% increase in parents or caregivers who chose low-sugar options.

“Zespri has always been invested in learning more about the nutritional benefits of kiwifruit to human health, but with this study, we sought to dig deeper into the nutritional outcomes of FVs as part of a whole-diet approach. It was important for us to embark on a feasibility study first to assess the viability and acceptability of dietary intervention in children, and the measurement of well-being outcomes.

“We investigated areas that have not been studied as much— in particular, well-being and cognitive development — to show how choosing FVs is not just a dietary decision, but an investment into the well-being of the child. The findings will guide us to further explore how FVscan benefit individual consumers and communities, while continuing to contribute to and advocate for healthy eating.”

Zespri has rolled out various nutrition programmes designed to increase the consumption of fresh kiwifruit around the world. Since 2020, it has supported 35 healthy lifestyle programmes in over 12 countries.

The company created 5bn healthy eating occasions in the 2022-23 season, and is en route to achieving its goal of 6bn by 2025.

Extending research to other markets

The Feel Good Study demonstrated the potential of elevating FV acceptance and vegetable intake, and improving overall diet quality among participants, through raising awareness of the diverse FV options available locally.

“The intervention also prompted positive changes in parental behaviour, with increased awareness of healthy eating leading to a conscious selection of more low-fat, low-sugar options for their kids. Parents are key influencers in shaping children’s food preferences. By incorporating FVs into family meals, they set an example for their children to model after.”

These results have given Zespri the confidence to run larger randomised controlled trials in other key markets, including China, in the next few years.

“There is an opportunity to increase FV consumption in China, which is currently quite low, especially at breakfast. This indicates an area that we can target and improve. The expanded study will involve a larger student population, allowing us to gather more comprehensive data and significant findings.

“As we scale up the research in other markets, we are keen to foster meaningful partnerships and welcome interest from other like-minded organisations that share our commitment in promoting healthy eating habits from an early age and ultimately building healthier societies,”​ Dr Blatchford shared.

Asked if Zespri intends to make kiwifruit’s active components into dietary supplements or functional foods, Dr Blatchford said that the company’s primary focus remains on delivering fresh kiwifruit to maximise value return for its growers.

“There is growing interest in the nutritional benefits of kiwifruit, which contain high levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. For now, we will work with growers to develop new ideas that will improve their well-being and safeguard productivity. This will allow them to grow more sustainably, and improve the quality and nutrient content of our kiwifruit.”

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