As I mentioned previously, I have researched intensively on the topic of food preferences, more specifically the factors that affect and determine them during childhood and whether or not they carry over into adulthood. We found that food preferences among children and adults are determined by a complex set of factors that are often interdependent.
In this post, I want to discuss the determinants of food preferences in children. I’ll briefly summarize the contents of my paper. Research shows that genetics and innate food taste responses, exposure to food during early childhood, and peer or familial modeling are what largely affect food preferences among children.
Taste sensitivity and preference for bitter, sweet, and sour are genetically determined and are innate at birth. On the other hand, salty and umami preferences appear around the age of four months.
For instance, bitter foods such as spinach, kale, soy, and grapefruit contain phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) and 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). They’re what produce a bitter taste stimulus in children. The response to bitter taste is modulated by members of the taste receptor type 2 genes (TAS2R). Individuals with low PTC/PROP sensitivity are classified as “non-tasters” while those with high sensitivity are classified as “tasters.” It’s a spectrum so there are also “medium tasters” and “supertasters.” I share all this to say that a child will have a tendency to accept or dislike bitter foods depending on whether or not he is a non-taster or taster.
Children innately prefer sweet tastes over bitter ones. No surprise there . Sweet flavors are generally liked by infants and children, and it’s likely that this acceptance is due to evolutionary development. Sweet foods provide carbohydrates and valuable calories, leading to a natural preference for sweet tastes.
Food neophobia, or rejection of novel or unknown foods, has also been identified as an inherent personality feature. It has been associated with personality traits such as emotionality and anxiety, which can be highly genetically related. Food neophobia can limit a child’s diet greatly. However, continued exposure to initially rejected food often attenuates food neophobia in children.
Now that I’ve briefly discussed the genetic determinants, let’s take a look at the environmental determinants. A child’s first encounter with food and flavor takes place in the womb as flavors from the maternal diet are transmitted to the fetus through amniotic fluid. Studies have shown that infants at birth and at weaning display greater acceptance for foods experienced in the womb. For example, infants whose mothers drank carrot juice during the last trimester showed an increased acceptance of carrot-flavored cereals compared to those whose mothers did not consume carrots.
In addition, an infant’s first postnatal encounter with food and flavor is through breastfeeding. Similar to amniotic fluid, breast milk is a reflection of the maternal diet, which may also affect an infant’s food preference during weaning. One of the many differences between breastfeeding and formula-feeding is that the flavor and viscosity of breast milk fluctuates, exposing the infant to a variety of flavors and textures. Now I know that we are all aware by now how beneficial breastfeeding is for babies, but perhaps you weren’t aware of this – Breastfeeding leads to less picky eaters later on in childhood who are more willing to try novel foods and consume a variety of fruits and veggies.
Over time, breast milk becomes inadequate at meeting the infant’s nutritional needs, and therefore the infant is introduced to complementary foods around the age of 4-6 months. Data suggests that introduction of complementary foods prior to 4 mo. of age is associated with being overweight during infancy. Innate neophobia, pickiness, and taste preferences can discourage the introduction to new foods, but never give up! Repeated exposure (usually 5 to 10 times) often leads to increased acceptance!
Last thing I want to mention is that modeling is extremely important in the development of healthy taste preferences during early childhood. I’ve been around children long enough to know that they’re extremely observant. They follow and mimic everything. Therefore, when you’re around the little ones, grab that fruit or vegetable and eat it like it’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted!
So to summarize the major points:
- For all you pregnant women out there, really focus on eating a varied diet consisting of nutrient-dense, whole foods. We all should be doing this regardless, but it’s extra important during pregnancy. You know the common saying “eating for two”? Well, it doesn’t mean that you should consume more calories but rather consume an adequate amount of essential nutrients.
- Try your hardest to breastfeed if you can.
- Don’t introduce solid or complementary foods before the age of 4 months.
- Don’t give up if your child refuses certain foods. Repeated exposure oftentimes leads to acceptance!
- Be an awesome role model when it comes to good eating habits.
The war against this childhood obesity epidemic begins in the womb! So let’s get out there and show the world that we must eat real food! No processed foods, no supplements, drugs…FOOD!
Thanks for reading . I hope I didn’t sound like I was lecturing. Totally not my intention! Stay tuned to find out what determines and shapes food preferences in adulthood and whether or not these childhood food preferences carry over.
I leave you with this precious picture…I am in LOVE with my nephew, Noah. He’s going to grow up to be a healthy boy with an insatiable appetite for all the wonderful foods nature has to offer!
Thanks to his mommy, who’s dedicated to breastfeeding and feeding him foods she normally doesn’t eat herself (acorn squash, carrots, broccoli…”scary foods” as she calls them. Really?), Noah’s diet is exceptional! Great job, sis! So proud of you!
Emo (auntie in Korean) Loves you, Noah! My sweet sweet darling!