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.
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.
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.
Taste buds are a group of cells on the tongue and around the mouth that detect five main flavours.
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.
There are five basic flavours that are detected by taste receptors in your mouth. These send taste sensations to your brain:
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.
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 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.