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What parents needs to know about their child’s taste buds

Parents know children love to eat sweet and salty foods. They also know these foods are not great for their child’s teeth or weight. But how do children learn to like the complex flavours of varied diet? The experts agree developing a good sense of taste needs to start early in life and in an environment, conducive to learning about food.

What is taste?

Your mouth and tongue give you your sense of taste. So, you can tell immediately what tastes bitter from what tastes sweet. Being able to detect bitter flavours was important in human evolution because many bitter tasting plants are poisonous.

Are children born preferring certain flavours?

Research has shown that children are born with innate preferences for sweet and salty tastes, and the tendency to reject food that tastes sour or bitter. Many children also have an aversion to new foods (food neophobia). These preferences evolved over thousands of years of human history, when food was scarce and our food environment was dramatically different from today.

What are taste buds?

Taste buds are a group of cells on the tongue and around the mouth that detect five main flavours.

What about the smell of food?

Smells come from molecules in the air that are detected by the nose. The sense of smell and taste work together to enable you to detect the flavour of a food.

The five basic flavours

There are five basic flavours that are detected by taste receptors in your mouth. These send taste sensations to your brain:

  1. Sweet is the taste of natural sugars found in many fruits.
  2. Salty is the taste of sodium and chloride (salt crystals).
  3. Bitter is the taste of many different chemicals. Although we often perceive bitter as uncomfortable or poisonous, we can actually learn to like bitter things such as olives.
  4. Sour is the taste of acidic solutions like lemon juice.
  5. Savoury (sometimes known as unami) can be tasted in foods such as Parmesan cheese, tomatoes and mushrooms. These foods all contain high levels of the amino acid, glutamate.

How do children learn to like other flavours?

An infant’s experience with flavour begins early, in the womb, and during the period of exclusive milk feeding. Breastfeeding gives the infant early, repeated exposure to the flavours of the mother's diet, providing a flavour bridge from milk to solid foods.

When is the best time for children to develop their food preferences?

The first year of life is a period of rapid physical, social and emotional growth, during which eating patterns also develop. During this first year, infants transition from consuming a single food (i.e. breast milk or formula) to consuming a variety of foods more characteristic of an adult diet. This transition allows infants to learn about food through direct experience, as well as through observation of others' eating behaviours. Children should be weaned onto solid food from 6 months.

Children need repeated exposure to unfamiliar foods to get to like them. Some foods can appear unpleasant at first, for example, bitter foods, but over time people learn to love them. Good examples of this are things like coffee and olives.

Children’s eating environment

Children learn to like a wide variety of food via positive experiences with food and eating such as cooking and food preparation with an enthusiastic adult.

Five tips on getting a child to like different foods:

  1. Experiments show children learn to dislike foods eaten to obtain rewards e.g. “eat your vegetables and you can watch TV” and learn to prefer foods eaten as rewards, e.g.“clean up your toys and you can have some cookies”.
  2. Introduce new foods, a little at a time.
  3. Create a positive environment around food with people cooking, touching feeling and smelling food in a relaxed way.
  4. If a child does not appear to like a new food try again later. It can take up to 15 exposures to a new food for a child to accept it.
  5. Provide positive role models. Research reveals that children's intake of fruits, vegetables, and milk increased after observing adults consuming these foods.

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