Food environment review finds research gaps for kids

August 20, 2014

Rachel Engler-Stringer and the Smart Cities Food Environment team recently produced a literature review looking at food environment research as it pertains to children.

The article, “The community and consumer food environment and children’s diet: a systemic review,” was co-authored by Ha Le, Angela Gerrard and Nazeem Muhajarine and is published in BMC Public Health (May 2014, 14:222)

The body of research into children and food environments is growing, and this article contributes by providing a comprehensive review examining food environments outside home and school and how these relate to children’s diet.

“It’s way of knowing what to look at, what is out there and what the gaps are,” says Engler-Stringer.

While the literature review gives context for the Smart Cities Food Environment study, it can also guide other researchers in the growing field of children and food environments in terms of identifying what new information is needed.

For the review, the team searched nine databases and refined a lengthy list of potential articles down to 26 that covered a set of criteria including community (location, accessibility) and consumer (price, promotion, placement) “nutrition” or food environments, as well as children and diet. Of the articles, 22 found at least one association between food environment and diet for children.

A significant finding is the variability in the ways researchers measure community and consumer food environments, as well with how they assess diet. For example, while GIS was used in many of the studies looking at location or access, there was a wide range used for buffer zones, from 160 to 3,000 metres. As well, only six of the studies used either indices of food prices or store audits to capture food environments.

“It’s hard to interpret results because we’re talking about such varying studies using varying methods,” says Engler-Stringer.

While the literature review does point to the limitations of the current research, Engler-Stringer and the team do find some evidence to link community and consumer food environments with dietary intake for children up to 18 years of age.

They also make recommendations for further research, including not only measuring observable parameters but also capturing perceptions of the food environment for children, as well as conducting more studies that combine community and consumer environments, using valid, reliable tools that can be used in multiple settings, and studying different age groups for children separately because of the different levels of mobility and independence.

“That to me is what’s most interesting,” Engler-Stringer says. “Children navigate their food environments very differently from adults.”


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