baby feeding

Sophie Nicklaus, food behavior from the table to the territory

A baby installed in a high chair, facing his mother… and surrounded by two cameras and a scale… This is a usual experimental device in Sophie Nicklaus’ team to study the complexity of eating behavior that hides behind little eyes circles and facial expressions of the child. Designing scientific protocols to study eating behavior and ultimately influence it has been Sophie Nicklaus’ whole approach since the beginning of her career as a researcher.

Healthy fed babies

Numerous experimental studies and cohort surveys have enabled Sophie to acquire a very rich body of knowledge on the development of eating behavior in children. Based on this knowledge, a guide, published in 2021, advises parents to help them feed their child healthily and prevent the risk of obesity.

Study of eating behavior in children
Study of eating behavior in children.

This guide takes into account for the first time the behavioral aspects of food, in addition to nutritional recommendations. In particular, he emphasizes the importance of early diversification of the diet: presenting a variety of fruits and vegetables repeatedly, without being discouraged at the first refusal, introducing small pieces even before the baby has teeth to encourage chewing, presenting all types of food at the right time to develop your immune system and prevent the onset of allergies. Lhe psychological dimension of food, conscious and unconscious, is fundamental. This is why Sophie sought to elucidate the psychological mechanisms of food learning. It has shown, for example, that the satiety effect associated with lipids in an artichoke puree will be reproduced even with artichoke puree without lipids, by association of flavors. “We have psychologists in the team, which is rare in INRAE ​​units dedicated to food. The behavior of the parents when they feed their child has been particularly studied, their possible insistence, their interpretation of the signals of rejection or satiety. These studies converge to encourage what is called “receptive feeding”, where the parent learns to perceive and respect the sometimes subtle signals of satiety from their child. This is important so that the child keeps control of his appetite and knows when to stop eating when he is no longer hungry.

Lhas size psychological of food is fundamental

“The set of results brought together in this guide is a unique body of knowledge”, summarizes Sophie Nicklaus. Continuing her rigorous scientific approach, Sophie has built a protocol to find out if the guide’s recommendations, as well as a smartphone application developed to facilitate adoption by parents, actually allow better feeding of babies. “We will find out by measuring their body mass index (BMI) at 3 years old: we will see if following the recommendations makes it possible to reduce the BMI and thus limit the risk of obesity. »

The dimension of sustainable food

Early childhood is a fundamental period for the development of eating behavior. “During my thesis work, I showed that the food preferences constructed from the age of 2 are remarkably stable until adulthood, and this result intrigued and fascinated me. Despite everything, there is room for action to encourage sustainable food at all ages, in its nutritional, environmental, economic and social dimensions. Faced with the climate emergency, the Métropole de Dijon initiated a vast program in 2020 called “Dijon, Sustainable Food 2030”, of which Sophie is the scientific director.

The dishes vegetarians collect with of the children a score too Well, even better, that The dishes meat

With her team, she leads ambitious projects in school and student catering. “We have studied the food supply on the nutritional and environmental levels 1 and we confirm the finding that reducing meat consumption is the most powerful lever for improving the environmental footprint of food, without causing a nutritional deficit”. In the “Owl canteen” program, it is therefore a question of promoting the introduction of vegetarian meals and their adoption by promoting pleasure through the 5 senses. A vegetarian meal per week has already been instituted in schools by the city of Dijon, under the Egalim law. Sophie’s team is conducting a survey of parents to gather their opinion on a second optional vegetarian meal, which will be offered in January, or even a daily vegetarian offer. Scientists have also obtained an important and encouraging result, using satisfaction terminals installed in canteens : vegetarian dishes obtain an average score from children that is as good, or even better, than meat dishes

A similar approach is conducted with students, to understand their food choices: a tray scanning system usable by 1 000 volunteer students will be installed in the Dijon university restaurant, in collaboration with the CROUS 2. This device will make it possible to follow the reactions of students to a change in the offer of dishes. Step prior to this work: convince the CROUS of the merits of the approach, with supporting figures!

A commitment coupled with patience and understanding of political issues

“Our diet is both fundamental and trivialized, analyzes Sophie Nicklaus. We have at least 200 food decisions to make a day, and yet we fall into routines that are hard to break.” There is a long work of awareness to be carried out at all levels. For example, to change the food offer in the school or university canteen, you have to mobilize all the staff, from management to the kitchens! “Our studies show that there are currently 25% of the dishes offered based on beef at the restaurant-U, which is a lot! Figures must be shown to raise awareness of the weight of habits and room for manoeuvre. »

To arrive at at a resilience and to a sovereignty eating begins to the scale from territory

On a regional scale, the entire complexity of the agri-food chain is at stake. The “Dijon, Sustainable Food 2030” project, for example, provides for the installation of a local vegetable store, but there is a lack of local market gardening production… Which means going back to land, encouraging the installation of young farmers with appropriate specifications… Another example, a virtuous agroecological action, such as the introduction of legumes in crop rotations, can come up to geopolitical realities, when the price of cereals soars and it is more profitable in the short term to grow wheat. Thus, “Dijon, Sustainable Food 2030” is an emblematic example of a multi-stakeholder system, with many sometimes contradictory issues. We must succeed in meeting these challenges, because achieving resilience and food sovereignty begins at the territorial level. concludes Sophie Nicklaus, whose commitment and enthusiasm remain intact.

1. Evaluation nutritional value using the Nutriscore method, read the article. Evaluation environmental via the Agribalyse 3.0 database, read the article.

2. CROUS: Regional Center for University and School Works.

Sophie Nicklaus' team
Sophie Nicklaus and her team from the Taste and Food Science Center (INRAE ​​Bourgogne-Franche-Comté centre).


“I am very happy with this Laurier, as recognition of this original and complex theme which consists in understanding the origin of eating behaviors, and the levers to change them. »

51 years old

  • Training
    2013: Accreditation to direct research, University of Burgundy, Dijon
    2004: Doctorate in food science, University of Burgundy, Dijon
    1995: Agricultural engineer, National Agronomic Institute Paris-Grignon, now AgroParisTech
  • Journey
    Since 2006: UMR Center for Taste and Food Sciences, INRAE ​​Bourgogne-Franche-Comté Center, Human Food Department: research manager until 2013, research director since 2014.
    2004-2005: Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, USA
    1998-2004: Research engineer UMR Arômes, INRAE ​​Bourgogne-Franche-Comté center
  • Awards and Recognition
    2022: Laurier Scientific Challenge of INRAE
    2022: Knight of the Legion of Honor
    2018: Danone International Prize on Food, Danone International Institute

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