Development of Childhood Food Preferences

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.  

As you can see, Noah is a “non-taster” If you need a good laugh, come back anytime and take a look at this face!

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.

Noah’s favorite – sweet potatoes!

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!

He was soo tiny!

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!

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27 Responses to Development of Childhood Food Preferences

  1. memeinge says:

    Loved it! I like how thorough it is & your major points summary should be posted in every public health department – I wish everyone would have a chance to read it 🙂

    Your nephew is absolutely adorable! Those pictures are so cute. Being an aunt is the greatest!

  2. Min I love all your posts- they’re always SO informative. I especially found it interesting that children tend to like what their mother’s ate during pregnancy- I always thought that was a myth. I should ask my mom what she ate when she was pregnant with me! Along with genetics, I think exposure plays a huge difference to…at least it did for me! Growing up I really wasn’t a vegetable-fan and now that I think back, it’s probably because the first time I tried it, I wasn’t a fan of the cooking style/flavors used. It’s all about experimenting and hopefully come up with a dish that ensures your child is a fan.

    Oh and on the topic of mimicking, you couldn’t be more right! Although kids are a long way away for me, I want to ensure that I eat balanced enough so that they adopt the same habits. Even if I am dealing with pregnancy weight then, I am going to lose it in a healthy way (even if it’s slow) rather than severely constrict my calories- I would hate for my kid to assume that’s the way eating should be!

    And Noah is sucha cutie- more pics please :)!

    • Min says:

      You’re exactly right! It’s all about experimenting! Persistence always pays off in the end!
      And you’re going to be a wonderful mom! I can already tell!

  3. Alicia says:

    this is a great post!! Pinning!

  4. Kari @ bite-sized thoughts says:

    What a wonderful post – and gorgeous photos 🙂 I like your point about repeated exposure to foods in children because I had heard a similar thing, that it can take up to 20 tries for a child to develop a like for something, and I imagine many parents stop far too soon!

    • Min says:

      You’re right, they do! It may pose a lot of difficulties and frustration but totally worth it! Imagine if your child craved fruits and veggies rather than all those junk food! Awesome!

  5. Your posts are always so full of information I didn’t know/hadn’t thought of! Also, Noah is the cutest!

  6. Corrie Anne says:

    Sweetest pics with Noah! What a fascinating post!! It definitely makes sense. I have pretty similar food preferences with my five siblings. Although I’ve branched out more as I’ve tried to eat cleaner. But I’ve never been able to get myself to eat seafood… neither of my parents like it, and we just never ever had it!!

  7. Aww what a cute picture! I’ve missed you for a while Min! Haven’t heard from you in a while so I figured I’d check how you were doing 🙂 You look great, so I guess all is well & busy 😉 XO

  8. Aww how sweet!! I was such a picky eater as a child, and I wonder if it is because my mom ate like crap… hmmm… This motivates me to be very cognizant of what I eat when I have a child!

  9. Aw, those pictures of you and Noah are so precious!! You can just see the love

    I love the term food neophobia…going to use that with my patients Thanks for educating us about this! I agree, persistence often pays off when it comes to new foods. Malia is only now starting to like different vegetables. And she absolutely watches us when we\’re eating – she always wants to eat fruit or yogurt if we\’re having it for dessert in the evening (we try to eat our ice cream after she goes to bed, haha!)

    • Min says:

      I know Malia is a really picky-eater, but it seems like you are doing a great job in trying to change that. Aww…I guess being a parent comes with a territory, huh? I have a hard time suppressing my cravings…If I want something, I need to have it right then and there!

  10. Kym says:

    What a wealth of information, Min! Thank you for this… i’m going to be an Aunt in 2 months and my sister-in-law will definitely find this blog post helpful!! *share* 😀

  11. Linz says:

    This is so interesting! Both my nephews are SUPER picky eaters and I try and tell my sis and bro to keep offering and have them keep trying new foods! Ah I’m sending them this article!

  12. Min! This was EXACTLY the discussion topic in my Nutrition Education Methods class last week! In fact, I read the carrot juice study as well. Such a coincidence! I think that food determinants are fascinating! When I was young, adults were always amazed that I would eat ANYTHING (fruits, vegetables, Indian food, seaweed etc etc), while their kids would touch nothing more than macaroni and cheese! My brother was exactly the same way as myself, which proves that we were genetically born “non-tasters,” but also that my mom was very health-conscious during her pregnancy (she still is!), and ensured that she ate a varied, nutrient-rich diet. She also never cooked us “special meals;” we had to eat what was served, or else we went hungry!

    Noah is such a sweetheart!! What a cute little boy! He’s lucky to have a loving aunt like you!

    Oh, and I know exactly how you’re feeling right now in regards to school…I’m swamped too. We can do it though! ❤ xoxo

    • Min says:

      Whoa, buddy! You ate Indian food and seaweed when you were little? Now THAT’s fascinating! Your mom sure knew what she was doing! My mom usually starves herself…Noah’s much cuter in person! I promise, I’m not biased ;).
      And Yes we can do it! Miss you!!

  13. Pingback: Saturday Showcase | The Texas Peach

  14. Jessica says:

    Great post! I wonder about these things often. My sister has always been a big salter and found out recently from our dad that our mom salted her baby food! He didn’t let her salt mine and I hardly salt my food, if at all. Also, as for trying food 5-10 times, I did this last year with a couple dislikes because I want to like everything. I’m a fan of coconut now, but after more than 10 tries of goat cheese, it still tastes nasty! Maybe it’s my cilantro, so to speak. My 3 year-old niece is super picky, so hopefully she’ll outgrow that, but I have some friends who are 30 and still eat like kids.

    Noah is precious!!

  15. Pingback: Picky Eaters Part 2: The Cause (It’s All Your Fault) « the food fighters

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