That's the conclusion of new research by T. Bettina Cornwell of the University of Oregon and Anna R. McAlister of Michigan State University. Their findings appear online this week ahead of regular publication by the journal Appetite.
The paper featured separate studies. One involved a survey of 60 young U.S. adults (ages 19-23) about the role of food-and-drink pairings. The second involved experiments with 75 U.S. children (ages 3-5) to determine the role of drinks and vegetable consumption. The same preschoolers were tested on different days under differing scenarios involving drinks served with vegetables.
Older participants favored the combination of soda served with salty, calorie-dense foods rather than soda and vegetables. Preschoolers ate more raw vegetables, either carrots or red peppers, when accompanied with water rather than when accompanied by a sweetened beverage.
Audio with T. Bettina Cornwell:
AUDIO BONUS: The May 18 interview with Cornwell on Jefferson Public Radio, Ashland, Oregon (30 minutes)
"Our taste preferences are heavily influenced by repeated exposure to particular foods and drinks," said Cornwell, the Edwin E. & June Woldt Cone Professor of Marketing in the Lundquist College of Business at the UO. "This begins early through exposure to meals served at home and by meal combinations offered by many restaurants. Our simple recommendation is to serve water with all meals. Restaurants easily could use water as their default drink in kids' meal combos and charge extra for other drink alternatives."
Serving water, McAlister said, could be a simple and effective dietary change to help address the nation's growing obesity problem, which has seen increasing number of diabetes cases in young adults and a rise in health-care costs in general. Drinking water with meals, Cornwell said, also would reduce dehydration. While estimates of dehydration vary by sources, many estimates suggest that 75 percent of adult Americans are chronically dehydrated.
From an early age, Cornwell said, children learn to associate sweet, high-calorie drinks such as colas with salty and fatty high-calorie-containing foods like French fries.
"While this combining seems as normal as rainfall in Northwest winters, when we look cross-culturally we can see that food-and-drink combinations are developed preferences," she said. "If the drink on the table sets the odds against both adults and children eating their vegetables, then perhaps it is time to change that drink, and replace it with water."
In January 2011, Cornwell and McAlister reported in the same journal that a child's taste preferences for salt, sugar and fat are related to their knowledge of fast food and soda brands.
These studies suggest that early palate development may influence choices later in life, McAlister said. "From a policy perspective, this means that we need focus on early preference formation."
"This important research has broad ramifications for how foods are marketed and served," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation at the UO. "Addressing the early contributors of unhealthy eating that contribute to obesity is important for our general well-being as a nation and, especially, for improving the nutritional choices our children will make over their lifetimes."
DOWNLOAD a PDF copy of the paper "Contingent Choice: Exploring the Relationship Between Sweetened Beverages and Vegetable Consumption."
The University of Michigan's Office of the Vice President for Research supported the project through a grant to McAlister.
About the University of Oregon
The University of Oregon is among the 108 institutions chosen from 4,633 U.S. universities for top-tier designation of "Very High Research Activity" in the 2010 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The UO also is one of two Pacific Northwest members of the Association of American Universities.
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Sources: T. Bettina Cornwell, Edwin E. & June Woldt Cone Professor of Marketing and director of research for the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, 541-346-8241, email@example.com; and Anna R. McAlister, assistant professor in Michigan State's Department of Advertising, Public Relations, and Retailing, 734-355-3758, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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