Study Says Kids' Food Knowledge Gap Could Affect Climate, Dietitians Weigh In

children eating

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study suggests children fail to identify the origins of plant- and animal-based foods.
  • Researchers imply this may be an opportunity to combat climate change through food choices.
  • Nutrition experts find some flaws in the study and encourage parents not to worry about the perceived knowledge gap.

A recent study implies that children are unaware of the origins of some of their favorite foods. But some dietitians speculate that part of the confusion may simply be related to age. Here, three dietitian nutritionists weigh in on the study and offer insights on age-appropriate nutrition awareness.

About The Study

Researchers tested a group of 176 racially diverse, urban-dwelling children ages 4 to 7 in the U.S. on their familiarity with the origins of plant-based and animal-based foods. They also tested them on their comprehension of edible vs. non-edible items.

Using laminated cards featuring either plant-based or animal-based foods, children were asked to sort them into one of two boxes. One box was covered with faux leaves and green felt for plant foods and one covered was covered in fur for animal foods.

A similar protocol was followed for discerning edible vs. non-edible foods. Children were asked to sort laminated cards into either a plastic mouth for edible foods or a small trash can with a swinging lid for those that were non-edible.

Based on their testing, researchers determined that 4- and 5-year-old children failed to accurately identify the origins of animal-based foods on a regular basis. They also theorized that based on their results children have a strong bias toward the idea that animals are not OK to eat.

Researchers also suggested this discovery indicates that there is a potential connection between the perceived knowledge gap exhibited by the data and a child's tendency to have more plant-based eating tendencies.

What Dietitians Say

Although the premise of the study is interesting, some dietitian nutrition experts question whether this study reveals an actual knowledge gap or if the confusion about whether foods come from animals or plants is simply the norm for this age group. What's more, some dietitians are concerned with the study's methodology as well.

Dustin Moore, MS, RD

They conducted this test and determined that kids failed to identify certain animals as food sources. But the question they are asking makes me wonder if kids actually understood this concept.

— Dustin Moore, MS, RD

"For the sorting task of OK and not OK food selection, I think this is a flawed data collection approach," says Dustin Moore, MS, RD, a lecturer and program coordinator for California State University Long Beach and public health doctoral student for the University of California Irvine. "They conducted this test and determined that kids failed to identify certain animals as food sources. But the question they are asking makes me wonder if kids actually understood this concept."

Moore explains that the researchers asked if something was OK to eat. What they may not have taken into account is that children this young sometimes take things literally and would not think that it is OK to eat an entire cow, chicken, or pig.

"We eat products from these animals, not the whole living animal themselves," he explains. "I don't know if kids this age can grasp this concept. A better question to ask may have been, 'Can these animals provide us with food to eat?'"

Meanwhile, Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT, also known as the Food and Movement Dietitian, is concerned that researchers may be reaching too far by implying the data reveals moral choices.

"The age group in this study of 4 to 7-year-olds isn’t necessarily inclined to make food choices based on ethics," Enright explains. "At this age, the taste is the leading driver of preferences. If the goal is to get children to eat more plants, then children need to be offered more plants during meals at home."

But What About Climate Change?

Researchers in the study indicate that livestock is the primary driver for climate change but Moore says she finds fault in the data presented.

Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT

You are not solving emissions problems via agriculture. Best estimates of greenhouse gas breakdown show that agriculture is just 11% of total emissions. Keep in mind, that [number represents all] agriculture.

— Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT

"I'm going to repeat this until I'm blue in the face," Moore says. "You are not solving emissions problems via agriculture. Best estimates of greenhouse gas breakdown show that agriculture is just 11% of total emissions. Keep in mind, that [number represents all] agriculture. If you stratified this by sector, animal agriculture would be even smaller. The figure cited in the paper (14.5%) is from a now-debunked study that used erroneous measures to calculate emissions in the transportation sector."

Elesha Ergle, RDN, LD, questions not only the climate change piece, but also the potential reasoning behind children's confusion about the origins of their food. Instead of a moral decision about whether animals should be eaten, she indicates that the U.S. as a whole has little exposure to farming.

"In the U.S., most people are far removed from family farms [only 2% of the U.S. population is in agriculture], which would be the ultimate reason for lack of knowledge and understanding of basic farming or where foods come from," Ergle says. "We are now in a generation of children whose parents have never had any working knowledge of agriculture."

Ergle says she is also concerned about the researchers' suggestions that children could impact climate change with different food choices. In fact, she says one study found removing animal agriculture would only decrease greenhouse gas by 2.6% in the U.S. and 0.36% globally, so the impact would be small. Plus, she believes placing the responsibility for impacting climate change by making different food choices may be asking too much of people.

"With so many children in the U.S. with food insecurities [55% of the children used in the study were from low-income households], placing the burden of climate change upon the shoulders of our children's food choices is a stressor that they should not have to bear," she says. "Our goal needs to be to educate adults and children on the sustainability of animal agriculture and the quality nutrition that comes from eating a variety of foods, including both animal and plant products."

What This Means For You

Nutrition experts agree that if your child thinks hot dog grows on trees, it is not a cause for alarm. This misunderstanding can easily be changed with discussions about where foods come from and how they are grown or made. You also can encourage produce consumption as part of an overall balanced diet. If you need assistance creating balanced meal plans or incorporating more plant-based foods into your family's diet, consider talking with a registered dietitian or a healthcare provider.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hahn ER, Gillogly M, Bradford BE. Children are unsuspecting meat eaters: An opportunity to address climate changeJournal of Environmental Psychology. 2021;78:101705. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2021.101705

  2. Vermeulen SJ, Campbell BM, Ingram JSI. Climate change and food systemsAnnu Rev Environ Resour. 2012;37(1):195-222. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-020411-130608

  3. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Global emissions.

  4. White RR, Hall MB. Nutritional and greenhouse gas impacts of removing animals from US agricultureProc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2017;114(48):E10301-E10308. doi:10.1073/pnas.1707322114

By Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, NASM-CPT
Nicole Rodriguez, registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, resides in the metro New York area, where she offers nutrition counseling and fitness coaching to a diverse clientele. A consultant to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and New York Beef Council, she’s on the eternal quest for the best burger. Nicole proudly serves on the Bayer L.E.A.D. (leaders engaged in advancing dialogue) network, and as a partner in kind with the Produce For Better Health Foundation. Eager to inspire the next generation of bold, active, and compassionate entrepreneurs, Nicole serves as leader of her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. In her spare time, you’ll find her browsing the grocery store aisles and working on her deadlift technique.