An easy way to get kids to eat asparagus? Not quite, but still, a very neat trick

ResearchBlogging.orgI'll never forget the one and only time my mom made quiche for dinner. I was in fourth grade, and she had proudly followed the recipe in "Joy of Cooking" to create an exciting gourmet treat. Naturally, my sister and I absolutely hated it, but mom made us clean our plates. Choking down that quiche (which I now love) is one of my most vivid childhood memories.

This scene, or some version of it, has been repeated countless in kitchens around the world as parents try to introduce new foods to kids who prefer the tried-and-true meals they've grown accustomed to. For some, it might be Brussels sprouts. For others, scalloped potatoes. And, of course, for many, it's asparagus.

But a team led by Cara Laney claims to have found a way to make kids love asparagus -- in their memories, after they've grown up, that is. How did they do it?

They started with 128 undergraduates at the University of California, Irvine. They were told they'd be taking a survey about food preferences and personality. First, everyone was asked about their "food history," with 24 questions about particular foods -- all these questions except one were only there to distract from the key question, which asked them to rate how likely it was that they "loved asparagus the first time they tried it" on a scale of 1 to 8.

After taking a couple of other questionnaires, again, to distract from the primary goal of the study, they were asked how likely they were to order each of 32 dishes from a hypothetical restaurant menu, again on a scale of 1 to 8. Again, asparagus was one of the dishes.

One week later, all the students were brought back and given a phony analysis of their responses to the previous week's survey. Here's the key to the study: as part of this analysis, half the students were told that their responses indicated they "loved to eat cooked asparagus" as a young child, while the other half were not told anything about asparagus.

Then everyone was given the original two food preference questionnaires again (one about how much they liked foods during childhood, and another about what items they were likely to order in a restaurant today). Here are their ratings for the "loved asparagus the first time you tried it" question:


So the students who had been told that they loved asparagus as children actually came to believe it to be true -- they rated that statement as significantly more likely to be true than the group that hadn't had the memory planted. So, on average, the researchers were successful in planting a false memory. But in fact these students could be divided into "believers," who thought recalled a specific instance of enjoying asparagus as a child or at least were quite convinced this was a true memory, and "nonbelievers," who did not. Did becoming a believer affect your taste for asparagus?


Believers actually rated themselves as significantly more likely to order asparagus in a restaurant compared to before the false memory was induced. For nonbelievers and those who had had no suggestion, there was no significant change.

In a separate experiment with a new group of students, the students actually rated photos of asparagus, and believers found them significantly more appetizing and less disgusting than the nonbelievers, and less disgusting than the control group did.

The authors say that this is one of the first times that a positive belief has been implanted as a false memory, and it demonstrates the power of false memory to potentially have and impact on attitudes. While it might not get your kids to eat their vegetables, it might be useful for promoting healthy eating in adults.

Laney, C., Morris, E.K., Bernstein, D.M., Wakefield, B.M., & Loftus, E.F. (2008). Asparagus, a love story: Healthier eating could be just a false memory away. Experimental Psychology, 55 (5), 291-300

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I had a similar experience with asparagus as a child except it was cream of asparagus soup. My father made all of us eat the whole bowl as well. It turned out so bad that he never again (as I recall) did that with any food again. I learned from that and when as I was raising my daughter I never forced her to eat food that was repugnant to her. She still doesn't like cooked onions which makes cooking a real challenge for me as I cook everything with onions in it.

The false memory concept is interesting, I may see if I can come up with a way to convince her that she really used to like onions....

I didn't like asparagus as a kid because I thought that the stalks looked like toes from an extremely large green reptile.

Of course, that's one of the reasons why it's now my favourite vegetable.

By T. Bruce McNeely (not verified) on 11 May 2009 #permalink

I have come across many such experiments involving induced memories. These kinds of forays were made recently popular in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, and a Text by Dr. Mark Runco on the concepts on human intelligence, contrasts between traditional intelligence or "g" and the idea of creativity as a separate brain function... pretty fascinating! stuff. I love this blog!

I've seen something like this on Scientific American Frontiers quite a few years ago. In fact, it sounds like the exact same experiment, only they used devilled eggs instead of asparagus.

By Christopher Lord (not verified) on 11 May 2009 #permalink

To mix a success story into the pot.... My wife-to-be's trick of acclimating me to a wide range of vegetables that I didn't yet eat as a college student (including asparagus) was to serve them pan-fried with copious amounts of garlic and butter.

And I gradually went from the pickiest eater in my entire family to by-far the most adventurous.

Interestingly, the *reason* my eating habits were so unacceptable to my wife was that she grew up in a family & culture in Malaysia where the idea that "kids don't like vegetables" was unheard of (logically, why WOULD kids dislike an entire diverse category of food? ...but for some reason I grew up refusing to *try* most of them), and various vegetables were her absolute favorite foods.


I'm under the impression that many people do not like certain veggies like asparagus and peas and eggplant because those plants produce chemicals that only certain people, those who have the genes/taste receptors to detect the molecules can taste them. The defense mechanism of many plants against animals that eat them is to produce foul-tasting and often poisonous toxins, and even though modern agriculture has gone through many generations of artificial selection, some of these chemicals (not harmful, but can be bitter) are still being produced. Does anyone know if this is true?

I also know that peoples' taste buds change over time. As a child, I loved asparagus, but at some point growing up, I began hating its taste. I haven't really eaten it much the past few years, but the times I had it recently, it didn't taste so bad as I had remembered. At this point, I'm not really sure how I really feel towards asparagus, but I do know that it makes my pee smell funny!

I'm always amused to hear stories of parents who forced their children to try new things, only to have their children rebel. I took a totally different tack. I would make a full meal, identical for everyone except myself. I would have a small serving of some exotic vegetable or food. When my children asked about it, I would tell them they probably wouldn't like it. But that I liked it so I made just a little so as not to waste it. Invariably, they would announce they were certain they had had it and they loved it and would I share? Asparagus? Broccoli? Greens? They loved them all. They would even fight to get the broccoli out of their stepfather's casserole, since he hated most vegetables.

I think my mom has induced positive memories about my eating as a child. When I asked her how she handled our pickiness (seeking generational wisdom in dealing with my children), she said something along the lines of "I just made food I knew you liked." Hello? All those cold mashed potatoes and peas I had to slip into my napkin or down to the dog? Were we at the same table?? (And I still don't like mashed potatoes, but peas I can handle.)

Memory seems to be impressively malleable. Good that we are focusing on vegetables, rather than a reprise of the "satanic ritual abuse" panic of the 80's.

Just reading this made me appreciate asparagus a whole lot more.

The rest of the comments seem so sagacious, I'm almost ashamed to put in my own:

I induced a real memory. Since we had two sons, I took them aside and explained that they should eat asparagus because it would turn their pee bright yellow and make it smell funny..."but don't tell your mother."

They couldn't wait to try asparagus. My wife couldn't believe her eyes when they wolfed it down without prompting. And of course they quickly obtained the predicted results.

Next time we had asparagus, they ate small helpings without a fuss, because they were used to the taste. Since asparagus is a rather complex flavor and children tend to prefer simple ones, it was never a favorite (still isn't, even at 21 and 19), but at least the struggle to get them to try it was past.The incident also made for a great family legend.

Also, the longer you cook asparagus, the more sulfurous it becomes. Same is true for cruciferous vegetables including brocolli and kale, all the way through to the dreaded Brussels Sprouts.All should retain a little bit of crunch rather than being reduced to the gelatinous mess so many of our mothers served I was thirty before I could stand the stuff; now I love it). You can also squirt lemon on your spears to brighten the base taste.

Nice article but, to be hones, it hasn't convinced me that you can simply induct memories.
If the group can be divided into "believers" and "non-believers" it rather indicates, that the result is a matter of inner factors (maybe the same as susceptibility to hynosis?) than external actions. Of course, those actions are essential catalyst but can bring any efect on their own.
So drawing conclusion that it can be cure for parental problems is a bit exaggerated as for me, however may be helpful.

I'm curious how long the introduced memories last. I'd guess that the real memories reappear at some point in the future, maybe a year later.

I'd also like to see if people really do order the items they say they would on a menu. It isn't unusual for me to say that I like a particular food in the abstract, then feel like eating something simpler when I'm in a restaurant. What I've eaten recently, the company and decor of the restaurant also affect what I actually eat just like the available food in the fridge affect what I eat at home.

Strangely I used to love asparagus as a child. now I'm not too keen. I remember all the fuss about the start of the season, the family driving to Evesham way to buy it (nice day out) and looking forward to eating it with loads of butter. We even had a special long pan to boil them in. It was once a year this happened. I wonder if the all year round availability, forced shoots (more than normal), poor quality stuff has taken the magic away. Plus it does make ones urine stink rather!

Isn't this experiment really just confirming the power of suggestion?

I don't get what the big mystery is. All you have to do to get a kid to eat something weird is put some cheese on it.

It would be interesting to do a similar study but involve parents. I don't remember what I ate or didn't eat before probably elementary school. I know I loved blueberry muffins, because my Mom told me. Would the effect be stronger if the participants were told that based on their mother's data, they loved a certain food? I certainly would be much more convinced!

How do you rule out that the test subjects are not simply being cooperative in such studies?

I'm guessing that when you partake in a questionnaire, you expect there to be an authority behind it. When presented with: "the results indicate that you love asparagus", and then ask the subjects to retake the questionnaire, how do you discern that a false memory has been planted, rather than that you influenced the results by authority?

Researchers have shown that when you were young, you enjoyed that funny game your uncle and you played with the asparagus stalks before he made offerings to Baâal Zebûb.

Man. I can't even get my kids to believe they used to like certain veggies when they were smaller when it's TRUE, much less induce false memories of same. Clearly they don't fall in the Believer category.

While this is a little late in internet-time...

We used this on my little sister ALL the TIME! Ketchup? "Oh, you used to love that!" From the age of 5-12, the surest way to get her to try a new food was to describe it as something she loved when she was younger. Meatloaf, peas, mushrooms, carrots... Instead of telling her she would like it, we told her she had liked it before. Even if she had never had it.

The study should be trying to find out why ANYONE enjoys that disgusting asparagus flavor AT ALL.
I'm sure that would be far more revealing. I've eaten bizarre foods from all over the world and very rarely found anything I couldn't at least swallow but asparagus is foul give me fried insects or raw meat any day over that overrated shit vegetable.

By fred johnson (not verified) on 18 Oct 2009 #permalink