For many years, taste has been a neglected part of food education for children in the school system. Food education has almost exclusively focused on health and nutrition and been dominated by rigid norms that leave no or little space for children to reflect upon the eating experience or engage in the sensual pleasures of food. In recent decades, however, we have witnessed an increasing interest in taste education. This engagement with the sensuality of eating could be understood as an innovative way of framing food education for children in which the corporeal and individual experience of food is taken seriously and used as a tool to facilitate a critical awareness of food among children.
In this article, we present the results of a critical literature review that we conducted to investigate how taste is used in contemporary food education. This critical literature review involved examining various studies from a reflective and critical education studies perspective rooted in a Nordic tradition of critical health education studies (Jensen 1995, Jensen 2000, Wistoft 2009). Such a perspective understands learning as an expansion of consciousness and emphasizes the importance of reflective decision making and critical awareness, including decision and action competence development. We wish to evaluate how intended learning is appraoched within the studies by focusing on the following questions: 1) Which concepts of taste are provided in the studies? 2) What are the learning goals and the learning approaches of the taste education initiatives? 3) What kind of value clarification is provided? 4) How are the children’s integrity and critical decisions weighed?
The main finding of our critical review is contrary to what one might expect, that the existing programs and evaluations of taste education display a reductive understanding of taste combined with learning and are essentially distrustful of children’s taste. Taste is seen as a barrier to ‘correct’ eating habits and is not recognized as an important sense, a source of pleasure, or a central instrument of sensually understanding and approaching the world. In other words, taste education becomes a tool to push children towards predefined and rigid eating behaviors. Through its critical examination of taste education, this article contributes to an on-going discussion of contemporary food education and a growing critique within food education studies of what has been referred to as “hegemonic nutrition.” The article ends with a few examples of how taste education could be (and is) done differently.
Taste education: History, Agendas and Prevalence
In recent decades, one particular French initiative has received much international attention and greatly influenced teaching and research on taste, children and learning: Les Classes du Goût, which was launched by the French chemist, philosopher of taste and oenologist Jacques Puisais, who began teaching taste courses in 1974 in and around the central French city of Tours. In the decade that followed, he developed taste lessons for children, which were subsequently introduced in schools across France. The project was spread over a school year and consisted of ten lessons with different themes. However, the project was terminated in 1998, when the national body responsible for the taste classes, Conseil National des Arts Culinaires, was closed down in part due to a looming financial scandal. Over the course of the preceding period, no fewer than 100,000 children had attended Puisais’s taste lessons. In 1999, his work was taken up again by the newly founded L’institut du Goût, which attempted to continue and develop the principles behind Puisais’s taste classes. Since the 1990s, a number of other countries have developed an interest in Puisais’s pedagogy of taste, making efforts to integrate these methods into their own teaching systems. The new partners have formed a collaborative organization called The Sapere Network, which includes a number of European countries.
Puisais’ initiative was driven by an anxiety concerning children’s food habits in modern French society. He viewed modernization and globalization as a threat to the French culinary and national identity; the arrival and the popularity of American products (such as fast food and ketchup) on the French market was considered a particular threat to French taste. And he considered children a particularly vulnerable group in need of guidance in order to avoid becoming “taste illiterate : “We must give our boys and girls reference points which allow them to make comparisons. If the child has never tasted a proper, fragrant tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes, he will always stick with ketchup” (Puisais and Pierre 1987). Taste education is presented as a way of making French children “worthy caretakers” of the French culinary heritage (Garnier 2001, 503). There is a very explicit political agenda in Puisais’ Classes du gout; in fact, it could be seen as a gastronationalist enterprise (DeSoucey 210), since specific taste ideals are used to promote and protect the myth of a shared collective, national identity. This national identity is created through a system of classification and distinction of taste (Bourdieu 1979) in which certain tastes are included in and others are excluded from the national myth. Taste education marks and upholds national borders and taste identity in times of globalization and its many threats – such as fast food and ketchup.
The example of Classes du goût also illustrates that taste education is never neutral or “innocent”. Rather, taste education – like all types of food education and education in general – are closely related to normative agendas and ideological projects. However, these agendas may vary. For example, L’institut du goût has already revised the taste pedagogy launched by Puisais. In an undated text by the leader of the institute, Patrick MacLoed, and the pedagogical supervisor Nathalie Politzer, a renewed pedagogical vision for the project is proposed. This new pedagogical vision privileges the personal experience of taste; rather than taking the objective, scientific categories of taste as a point of departure, it cerates room for children to discuss and understand how taste experiences differ from individual to individual. Hence, the focus of taste education is no longer the preserved national taste and identity but the individual experience of taste, and, at the same time, taste education becomes a vehicle for lessons of tolerance, since the children learn to respect and tolerate other children’s experiences, which might differ from their own (Mac Loed and Politzer 2015).
A Critical Health Education Perspective on Taste Education
This article is informed by a Nordic tradition of health education, most notably the earlier work of professor Karen Wistoft (Wistoft 2009, Wistoft 2013). From this perspective, health should not be understood as an objective or universal category but as contextualized and dependent on individual experiences. Hence, taste education as well as health education should be guided by value clarification and dialogue with students. Teaching does not necessarily condition learning, and specific learning approaches do not necessarily condition the best learning outcome; this also applies to ‘food and meal’ lessons in schools. Teachers’ didactic reflections usually reflect the content and form of the teaching, as well as a number of expectations for students’ learning. A new quantitative study that investigates students’ work with taste in relation to their own expected learning and value clarification shows a connection between taste and learning (Christensen and Wistoft 2016). The study concludes that teachers need to create a balance between critical reflections and taste as a value-clarified approach in enabling students to achieve learning goals.
If we view taste education for children from this perspective – as we do in the research project Smag for Livet [Taste for Life], of which this article is a part –, taste and taste ideals cannot be understood as universal truths or taken as starting points for the pedagogical task—nor can they be forced onto children with the intention of adjusting their taste accordingly. Instead, the pedagogical task of taste education should be reflective work in which the student is made aware of his/her sense of taste and how it can be used as a tool to navigate the world. The student’s individual experience should also be taken seriously and the education should facilitate development of awareness, competency and reflection in relation to taste. This perspective shares many features with that presented by (Mac Loed and Politzer 2015), but it differs from the original perspective defined by Puisais, which contained a clear and non-negotiable understanding of good and bad taste and little room for individual agency, since the goal of the project – roughly speaking – was to make children like traditional French food and eating habits and comprehend its superiority to foreign – particularly American – cuisine.
By adopting the critical health education perspective on taste education, our article can be understood as a part of a larger critique within food studies that questions the longstanding perception of food and nutrition education based on objective truths and control-oriented strategies. This critique has been popularized by the term nutritionism (Pollan 2008, Scrinis 2013). For Scrinis, the nutritional gaze – which is the hegemonic perspective of nutritionism – is “a way of seeing and encountering food primarily as a collection of nutrients, and in terms of a set of standardized nutritional concepts and categories, such that it overwhelms other ways of seeing and encountering food” (Scrinis, 2013, pp. 13-14). A similar perspective, which is more closely related to education, is offered in the anthology Doing Nutrition Differently (Hayes-Conroy and Conroy 2013). This volume offers a series of ways to rethink nutrition beyond and against what is referred to as hegemonic nutrition, which is defined as a dominant ideology that understands food in standardized, reductionist, decontextualized and hierarchical ways (ibid, 1-4). From a hegemonic nutrition perspective, there is only one truth about food, nutrition and health, and this truth is universally applicable. This volume presents a series of ways of thinking nutrition as something that “begins and ends with nutritional guidelines” (Ibid 1). In this way, the nutritional sciences are seen as an “important, yet partial knowledge/practice and one that needs to be deeper in dialogue with other, diverse food and health knowledges/practices” (Ibid. 4). The pedagogical perspective and mode of interactions – essentially “listen to the nutritionist and do what s/he says” – are particularly challenged.
Much of this critique of nutrition discourse and education is concerned with how scientific discourse is used to discipline and control bodies and identities; this is often done by reworking the ideas and concepts of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, notably his work on governmentality and disciplining. A central point is often that food education is closely related to scientific régimes of truth to which the student must adhere, and, as such, food education serves as an instrument of power through which subjects and behavior can be controlled by official channels (Coveney, Begley et al. 2012).
This article contributes to the critical debate about nutrition and food education by offering a critical health education analysis of how taste education has been performed and evaluated in contemporary food education.
The article is based on a literature review conducted in the autumn of 2014 (Leer and Wistoft 2015). The aim of this review was to identify new studies on how taste was used in food education for children. The review process was performed in 6 steps:
< >Creating a protocol with a search strategy, review question and search word; phrasing the search and search channels; listing criteria for inclusion and exclusion.Screening, mapping and scoping the studies by reading the title, abstracts and key words. If we questioned the relevance, we read the entire study. Assessing quality in relation to criteria for inclusion and exclusion.Extracting data to be included in the studyCritically analyzing and synthesizing the dataWriting the analysis.be peer-reviewed be published in the last 10 years (between 2004 and 2014)focus explicitly on education and tasteinvolve children.What forms of knowledge are associated with taste education?What values are mediated through taste education?What learning approaches and pedagogical ideologies are used in taste education?What competencies are children supposed to acquire in taste education?  This is seen in contrast to reason, which can be changed over the period of a teaching course, putting the ‘corrupted’ intuition back on track. Unfortunately, according to the study, reason is inferior to intuition; therefore, taste only changes as long as teaching addresses the taste of reason. Based on this, Reverdy et al., like many other studies, conclude that an effort should be made to teach taste more intensively from an earlier age, following the assumption that this will encourage ‘reasonable’ taste to replace the undesirable and sugar-craving intuitive taste. This pertains both to the neophobia studies and the studies in which taste education aims to make children eat more fruit and vegetables. In these examples, the children are meant to internalize ‘reasonable’ taste so that they intuitively make the reasonable choice, meaning fruit and vegetables – or neophilia. This intention is perhaps most explicitly expressed in Dovey et al. (2007), who call for “a multi-faceted approach to get children independently to choose and include fruits and vegetables in their diets” (Dovey, Staples et al. 2007, 190).
Controlling children’s taste
From the examples presented above, it becomes clear that, in the majority of studies, the purpose of taste education is behavioural modification and control of children’s taste. Control appears in different forms and is justified by slightly different motivations.
One of the most notable examples of a taste control strategy appears in the review Should Healthy Eating Programmes Incorporate Interaction with Foods in Different Sensory Modalities? (Dazeley, Houston-Price et al. 2012), where several sense-based and experimental teaching forms are criticized. The criticism mainly concerns the fact there is no proven long-term effect on children's healthy eating or that the results of the study are not properly verified with control groups. The authors suggest a different approach:
School-age populations are perhaps better served, at present, by classroom interventions that are not primarily based on sensory interaction with foods, such as the Food Dudes programme, developed for children aged 4-11 years by psychologists at the University of Bangor. This intervention draws on the psychological principles of modelling and rewarding healthy eating behaviors as well as repeated taste exposure to target foods. Every day for 16 d[ays], children are presented with a portion of fruit or vegetable, which they are required to taste in exchange of a Food Dudes sticker with the added incentive of a small prize (such as a pencil case) if they eat the whole portion. The exposure regimen is supported by a daily Food Dudes video, in which four cartoon super heroes gain special powers by eating fruit and vegetables in order to do battle with General Junk and his junk Punks (Dazeley, Houston-Price et al. 2012, 774-775).
This approach – using rewards and showing cartoons of superheroes eating fruit and vegetables while fighting junk food – is underpinned by a study that proves that this method had a long-term effect on children’s eating habits; in other words, that the children ate more fruit and vegetables and less junk food both during and after the course. The Food Dudes method and other similar methods thus highlight behavioural change as the pedagogical ‘goal’. Behavioural change means modelling children’s taste, making their senses adapt to the predefined taste.
Hands-on activities and school gardens
At first glance, the school garden studies provide more leeway for taste experiences than the Food Dudes approach or similar approaches, particularly because of the spatial freedom and emphasis on varied, physical activity it proposes. Nevertheless, within these studies, the purpose of taste education is just as fixed and normative and taste is still something that needs to be ‘fixed’ in a very specific way: “Gardening has been demonstrated to increase children’s nutrition knowledge and preference regarding fruit and vegetable consumption and to change behaviors regarding vegetable consumption” (Parmer, Salisbury-Glennon et al. 2009, 216). Again, the focus is on knowledge about nutrition (at the expense of food) and how the students’ intake of fruit and vegetables can be increased. In this sense, taste is conceived as nothing but a preference for fruit and vegetables.
This focus is also found in other school garden studies. Libman (2007) writes about developing agency in relation to food choices, but only when it comes to making the right, healthy food choices and avoiding fast food (Libman 2007, 9). Taste is still perceived as a barrier for good health or as something which, through adjustment, can motivate a healthy diet. Developing competency and agency in relation to taste is equal to unlearning unhealthy habits and choosing healthy food. Action and competency are reduced to acceptance of, and compliance with, the predefined norms. The tasting student must unlearn ‘disorders’ and internalize the ideals of power. In this way, the purpose of education is to make the body accept these ideals. Therefore, it is important to maintain that ‘hands-on’ activities do not equal participant involvement and that teaching which includes the body does not per definition give the pupils ownership or freedom to draw experiences and conclusions that may lead to free food choices. This depends entirely on the framework and purpose of the garden education.
In this section of the article, we would like to discuss the above taste education programs and studies from the critical health perspective. We will distinguish between control and pedagogy before using Foucault’s idea of “the docile body” to clarify this distinction and argue that contemporary taste education focuses solely on control. We will ultimately call for a new taste education that focuses on learning.
Control vs Pedagogy
From our pedagogical standpoint rooted in the Nordic critical health approach, it is pertinent to ask whether the above studies (and their analyses) actually deal with pedagogical activities. Control and pedagogy are not the same thing, yet many of the studies seem to disregard the difference. For example, the ambition to make children voluntarily or independently eat more fruit and vegetables (as presented in Dovey et al. (2007)) merely expresses a desire for individuals to subject themselves to predefined practices, health ideals and truths. This is not learning if learning is perceived as realization, individual decision-making and development of competency – c.f. a reflective ideal of Bildung, where learning is characterized by expansion of consciousness and reflection on new insight, knowledge and, in the present context, actions and taste experiences (Wistoft, 2009). This also pertains to the Food Dudes project, which can be seen as an example of the same teaching practice, coaxing and rewarding children into eating in accordance with a predefined ideal that is not up for discussion. This is neither insight nor expansion of consciousness; even less is it development of competency. Some form of education undoubtedly takes place on these courses, but it is education that does not aim at learning; it only aims at control. Perhaps this practice is an efficient means to achieve goals, but the goals are not learning orientated; they only operate with modelling and behavioural control. What is produced and desired are not perceptive, competent individuals but rather what Foucault calls “docile bodies”; a concept introduced by Foucault in an analysis of the birth of the prison system in his book Surveiller et punir (1975). Foucault argues that, over the course of the 18th century, a change occurred in the way the state exercised power over disobedient subjects. Corporal punishment and threats of violence were replaced with different forms of disciplining, which would become the dominant form of execution of power. The disciplining took place in institutions, poorhouses, the military, schools and prisons where:
The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. A ‘political anatomy’, which was also a ‘mechanics of power’, was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practised bodies, ‘docile’ bodies. Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes the same forces (in political terms of obedience).
The purpose of taste education in the studies we analyzed is only slightly different and aims at the same disciplining strategy. Through the disciplinary effect of repetition, pupils are meant to internalize the preconceived values and ideal practices related to taste, so that their bodies (and tongues) ‘intuitively’ act in accordance with these dietary ideals.
There is a strong connection and resemblance between how these studies conceive of taste education. All the studies largely follow the same logic, taking their point of departure in a perceived crisis that defines the miserable state of contemporary food culture. The diagnosis varies slightly, but contemporary food practices are consistently presented as unhealthy and food culture as heading in a very dangerous direction. In this connection, children are described as a particularly vulnerable group whose taste can be led astray; this, it is argued, can have disastrous consequences if taste education is not introduced to set their taste back on track. Such prescribed education entails disciplining the sense of taste and leaves no room for individual taste experience and independent food choice.
As described above, according to Foucault, the new, dominant control technologies of the 18th century aimed at moulding, disciplining and standardizing bodies into ‘docile bodies’ based on ideals and systems of power. In the same vein, contemporary taste education, as described in the literature analyzed here, aims – more or less explicitly – at making children’s tongues docile so that they obey the concepts of correct nutrition defined by institutions of power. The crisis has been diagnosed; the only discussion in the literature regards what method is the most effective. How can children’s tongues be made as docile as possible? How can lasting obedience be ensured?
From our pedagogical perspective, this is not pedagogy but control. With such narrow goals and methods and limited understandings of taste, children and learning, it is impossible to practice pedagogical activities that will create a framework for children’s development of competencies and enable them to make informed and reflected food choices.
Perhaps this controlling approach can be explained by the disciplines in which the studies have been conducted and the nutrition-orientated and scientific methods to which value is ascribed. It is clear that some goals are defined for children’s diets, while other, scientific, goals can be monitored with summary methods: numbers can be applied. The learning goals we find lacking are more difficult to put numbers to; they require a fundamentally different perspective on pedagogy and taste, expressed in reflective and critically motivated education that teaches children to make informed food choices. The goals cannot be predefined, and the children must be involved in a far more reflective process with an eye to the significance and meaning of taste as well as the aesthetic, cultural and social dimensions of taste. Measuring this form of education and learning would require completely different scientific methods and designs, and it would involve talking to the children to incorporate their ideas and experiences of food into the education programs; perhaps these ideas and experiences would even have to form the starting point. It would also require very different initial reflections on the pedagogical task, including a reflective clarification of the values and forms of knowledge involved as well as the roles played by teachers, students and researchers.
Based on our analysis of the studies of taste education interventions, we conclude that all the studies in our review use taste education to modify children’s eating habits, which are considered to be in very poor shape. In this way, the studies echo Puisais’ ambition to uphold national taste borders and taste identity; they also share the idea that taste education for children can be used as a tool to “better” children’s health. However, the political, normative and pedagogical assumptions of these interventions are never questioned or discussed. The reviewed literature operates with absolute distinctions between the right and the wrong way of eating. Puisais took for granted that French food was always good while American food was always bad, and the studies present similar dichotomist understandings of good vs. bad food practices, focusing almost exclusively on increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables. The studies and interventions are thus formed by the ideology of “hegemonic nutrition” based on an uncontextualized and hierarchical approach to food education. Moreover, all the studies operate within a behavioristic pedagogy that is only interested in behavior modification; this can be understood through Foucault’s theories of corporeal management. Other pedagogical aspects of taste education are not explored and the children’s perspective or experience of taste are never meaningfully integrated into the study design or the didactic goals of the interventions and studies.
As such, the studies do not take into account the revisions of the goals and agendas of taste education presented by Macloed and Politzer 2015, who call for giving children’s experience a more central role in taste education and using taste education to learn about diversity and tolerance. We have also argued elsewhere that taste education offers a multitude of pedagogical potentials (Leer and Wistoft 2015). As a contrast to the hegemonic nutrition paradigm, these alternative formulations could be understood as a reflective taste pedagogy. This reflective taste pedagogy is not anchored in behaviorist ideas but focuses on value clarification and how taste education can develop critical awareness and reflection in specific contexts about food and a variety of other subjects in school. Furthermore, such a reflective pedagogy would help develop children’s mental ownership and social competencies.
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Mentioned in the article
Postdoc, PhD, Aarhus University
Jonatan Leer is part of the focus area Learning. He does research in taste pedagogy and food culture.
Karen Wistoft is a member of Taste for Life’s management and in charge of the focus area Learning. She has a background in health pedagogy research and now focuses on the elementary school subject, Madkundskab, i.e. food literacy, and the development of new pedagogies and didactics of taste.