Finding out more about food choices and preferences of adolescents in Europe

01 December 2007

The HELENA (Healthy Lifestyle in Europe by Nutrition in Adolescents) study gives new insights into the food and lifestyle habits of young people in five countries and shows surprising similarities, as well as some key differences, across Europe.

The HELENA study is a 3-year EU funded project aiming to improve understanding of the nutritional and related lifestyle habits of young people aged 13-16, across 10 European countries (for more details of the study’s overall objectives see Food Today, No 49 – June 2005).

The initial phase of the project

Food intake is affected by perceptions and attitudes regarding nutrition and health but also by food choices and preferences. The preliminary phase of the HELENA study investigated these parameters using qualitative research, which involves an in-depth understanding of human behaviour and the reasons that govern human behaviour, in five of the participating countries (Belgium, Hungary, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom).

Method

A total of 304 full-time school attendees were divided evenly by gender and age (13-14 and 15-16 year olds) into 44 focus groups across the five countries. Wide ranging discussions were facilitated by experienced moderators using a discussion guide translated into the language of each country. Participants were specifically asked to rank from a list the top three influences on their food choice for each meal or snack in the day.

Results

Snacking is universal

Meal patterns and food choices within each meal varied between countries. Three meals a day with snacks in between was typical in all countries except Spain, where younger adolescents ate 3-5 meals a day plus snacks. Snacking between meals occurred in all countries, especially after school.

Taste is the major influence on food choice

There were many similarities between countries regarding the main influences on food choice. ‘Taste’ was by far the most important factor for all meal occasions and in all countries. Other similarities were the influence of parents, especially at breakfast and the evening meal, the importance given to health (mostly by the parents, rather than by the participants themselves) and convenience.

Although habit influenced food choice in all countries, particularly breakfast and snacks, this was especially so in Belgium and Spain but was less important in Hungary and the United Kingdom. In Sweden, school influences were said to be very important at both breakfast and lunch.

Barriers to healthy eating

The young people taking part in this survey understood the importance of healthy eating and knew they did not always eat as well as they should. To them, the problem with ‘healthy’ food was that it is boring and does not taste very nice, does not fill them up when hungry, takes too much effort and is expensive.

There appeared to be a lack of immediate concern about poor eating habits or lifestyle. They may have known some of the theory of nutrition and health, but many of their comments implied that they have difficulty in putting this into practice, probably not helped by some of their misconceptions and lack of knowledge about food.

Where do we go from here?

Results from the discussion groups will be used to develop a questionnaire for obtaining quantitative information about influences on adolescent food choices and preferences across all 10 countries (Austria, France, Germany, Greece and Italy in addition to the five countries involved in the qualitative survey). The focus will be on snack foods, drinks and habits and attitudes about food, diet and health. The information obtained will facilitate the development of healthier foods to appeal to the taste and hunger needs of adolescents and help break down the perceived barriers to healthy eating.

Reference

Gilbert C.C., Sanchez M.J., Lehoux C., Hegyi A., Åström A., Hall G., Merino G., Masson A., Fontaine L., Kuti T. (2007) Qualitative research investigating food choices and preferences of adolescents in Europe. Abstract and poster on behalf of the HELENA study

The HELENA study takes place with the financial support of the European Community (Contract FOOD-CT-2005-007034). The content of this notice reflects only the author’s views and the Community is not liable for any use that may be made of the information contained therein. www.helenastudy.com