Tradition Breeds Better Nutrition in Italian Children

To improve the eating habits of Italian kids, sommelier Nicola Di Noia offers seminars for children on the secrets of extra virgin olive oil.

By Veronica Pamoukaghlian
Dec. 8, 2016 08:40 UTC

A recent arti­cle in Italian news­pa­per La Stampa warned against the effects of adver­tis­ing on the eat­ing habits of chil­dren, cit­ing an International Health Organization report. Experts unan­i­mously agree that the food pref­er­ences of chil­dren have been going from bad to worse over the last few decades.

In Italy, a coun­try known for its rich culi­nary her­itage and exquis­ite pro­duce, the great­est fear is that these tra­di­tions might even­tu­ally be sub­merged beneath the weight of media adver­tis­ing for for­eign, low-qual­ity processed foods.

While some Italians may do lit­tle more than lament the likely demise of cen­turies of culi­nary tra­di­tion, Nicola Di Noia, an olive oil som­me­lier and agron­o­mist at the Italian farm­ers’ asso­ci­a­tion, Coldiretti, has decided to do some­thing about it.

Di Noia’s work is a tes­ti­mony to his pas­sion for olive oil and he has begun to hold instruc­tional tast­ings with chil­dren as young as 4 years old.

During a recent event, one-third of the atten­dees were the chil­dren of olive oil and wine enthu­si­asts, Di Noia said, but the rest were the sons and daugh­ters of ordi­nary Italians, per­haps look­ing for a way to share their rich culi­nary her­itage with the younger gen­er­a­tion.

As many par­ents sim­ply give up and often feed their chil­dren what­ever they want, Di Noia is try­ing to help kids dis­cover a whole new world of fla­vors and scents, and start­ing them on the road to bet­ter nour­ish­ment.

The ques­tion is, can young chil­dren be taught to dis­tin­guish low-qual­ity olive oil from antiox­i­dant-rich extra vir­gin olive oil? And how can they ben­e­fit from that knowl­edge in the long term? Di Noia shared details of his unique expe­ri­ence with Olive Oil Times.

OOT: Why did you start out with the olive oil tast­ings for kids?

Di Noia: Children are our future, it is impor­tant that they under­stand imme­di­ately that eat­ing prop­erly is essen­tial for their lives. Proper edu­ca­tion about nutri­tion should be a core sub­ject in schools. If chil­dren learn to dis­tin­guish good food from bad, they will surely live a bet­ter life. Extra vir­gin olive oil is essen­tial for a proper nutri­tion. Learning to rec­og­nize qual­ity EVOO oil is easy, and it can also be fun. Children are always ready to face new expe­ri­ences, they lack the con­straints and pre­con­cep­tions that often bur­den adults. If they learn from a young age how to use their sense of smell and taste, they will be able to choose bet­ter food through­out their lives.

Maria Antonietta Pioppa with Nicola Di Noia (Italian Sommelier Foundation)

OOT: How was your first expe­ri­ence tast­ing with chil­dren?

Di Noia: It was excit­ing. I tried it with a small group of chil­dren, who also included my own chil­dren, and their responses were enthu­si­as­tic and full of joy. I was encour­aged by this, and we started doing the first tast­ings in schools, and then we expanded to dif­fer­ent loca­tions, but we always made a point of cre­at­ing a wel­com­ing and relax­ing atmos­phere. We made the chil­dren feel at ease, so they could focus on olfac­tory recog­ni­tion activ­i­ties and the tast­ing of the oils.

OOT: What do you want to achieve with these events?

Di Noia: I wish to spread the cul­ture of qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil, and teach chil­dren that olive oils are not all alike. Raising aware­ness in chil­dren is also a way to rapidly reach their par­ents. When kids learn that rec­og­niz­ing qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil is essen­tial for their health, par­ents become aware of it too. As a result, par­ents are more will­ing to search for qual­ity oils for the good of their chil­dren, who now have the abil­ity to appre­ci­ate them. Oils rich in polyphe­nols and antiox­i­dants can be rec­og­nized through sen­sory and scent analy­sis. They smell like cut grass, tomato, almond, and they reveal hints of bit­ter and spicy fla­vors when tasted. It is impor­tant to know these things, and it’s never too early or too late to learn.

OOT: What kind of spe­cific responses do you get from the kids? Do they enjoy the events?

Di Noia: For them, it is a lot of fun. They feel like they are play­ing a game. They not only learn how olive oil is pro­duced and stored, but they also redis­cover their senses, espe­cially smell and taste. During the tast­ings, chil­dren also have the oppor­tu­nity to smell nat­ural prod­ucts, such as grass, arti­chokes, and toma­toes. The idea is to famil­iar­ize them with the scents of these prod­ucts, so that they can redis­cover them in oil. The ses­sions are never too the­o­ret­i­cal. They com­bine knowl­edge with games. It is very impor­tant to make them inter­act, to get them to talk and judge foul smells, because they should also be able to tell when an oil is of poor qual­ity.

Nicola Di Noia

OOT: How has glob­al­iza­tion changed the diet of Italian chil­dren?

Di Noia: Some mod­ern eat­ing pat­terns are unfor­tu­nately spread­ing an inap­pro­pri­ate diet. Children are eat­ing more and more snacks, which are very rich in sugar, inex­pen­sive, and read­ily avail­able, but they also dam­age their health. Advertising has changed our lifestyle and eat­ing habits in a deci­sive man­ner, espe­cially for chil­dren. Adults must help them make bet­ter choices, because it is too late later in life to reverse the effects of a poor nutri­tion.

Coldiretti, with the aid of the Campagna Amica Foundation, is ded­i­cated to help­ing fam­i­lies make informed deci­sions about food, favor­ing local Italian pro­duce, and high­light­ing the need to con­sume sea­sonal prod­ucts. Children must learn to con­sume more fruits and veg­eta­bles and to pre­fer prod­ucts made with whole grain or unre­fined flours.

Thanks to its scents and sen­sory char­ac­ter­is­tics, extra vir­gin olive oil can steer chil­dren towards foods that do not often attract them, such as vital legumes. Quality EVOO oil is a fruit juice with strong antiox­i­dant pow­ers. We should bring back the tra­di­tion of the old times, when instead of indus­trial prod­ucts, chil­dren used to eat bread and olive oil as a snack.

OOT: What was the most unex­pected response you ever got from a child?

Di Noia: After one of our tast­ings, a lit­tle girl went back in school and taught the whole les­son to her class­mates, leav­ing every­one speech­less, includ­ing the teacher!


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