JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Childhood obesity rates in America have tripled since the 1970s, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese.
Nutrition professors and students at the University of North Florida believe food neophobia -- the fear of trying new foods -- is partially to blame, which is why they're conducting a new study at a local elementary school in hopes of improving the health of young children by introducing them to new fruits and vegetables.
News4Jax sat in one one of the taste testing studies Wednesday at Holiday Hill Elementary, where most of the students tried star fruit for the first time.
Some of their reactions were priceless.
"I think it tastes no -- not good," said first grader River while giving a thumbs down. "I threw it away."
River said he isn't sure why he didn't like it, but he said there are fruits and vegetables he does like. Many other students felt the same way.
"I don't like the star because it tasted bad," said kindergartner Yaisel.
"Too soury," said kindergartner Anna.
"I don't want it," said kindergartner Anderson.
Every week, nutrition professors along with a dozen UNF students are offering up a variety of fruits and veggies to help these young students overcome their fears of new eats.
"You can taste it. You can lick it. You can smell it. You don't even have to eat it," said Dr. Leslie Kaplan, associate director of the Hicks Honors College at UNF.
They hope by expanding their palates at a young age, children will lean toward healthier options.
To get the students, especially the young ones, interested in trying new foods, researchers come up with some kind of catch phrase or comparison to foods that they know. For example, researchers told students the star fruit tastes like an apple.
Parents can also try the same tactic at home with other foods too.
So far, the students have tried bok choy, heirloom tomatoes and kiwi. All of the food samples have been donated by the school dining company Chartwells.
"We were a little nervous, 'Were they going to try it?' Were they going to feel comfortable enough to try it? My students and myself were really surprised that a lot of students seemed interested in trying the bok choy," said. Dr. Corrine Labyak, assistant professor of nutrition at UNF.
The star fruit ended up being popular among several students.
"Juicy like an apple. Sour like a lemon," said kindergartner Anna.
"I want another one," kindergartner Journie said.
The student is in its fourth week and more than a thousand students have put their palates to the test.
And it's already making a difference.
"I love trying different fruits," Anna said.
But some students are still a bit confused when it comes to the food groups.
"Bananas, apples, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," kindergartner Anderson responded, when asked what vegetables he liked to eat.
The taste portion of the study will last for 10 weeks and the data will be collected over three years before the results are released.
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