When I was a kid, I was a picky eater. I knew what I liked, I knew what I didn’t like, and I knew what I was sure I wouldn’t like if I ever tried it, which I had no intention of doing, because why should I force myself to eat something I already knew I didn’t like?
I remember my first visit to a Chinese restaurant. As the adults in our party chowed down on interesting concoctions of vegetables and noodles and meat in exotic sauces, I had a hamburger. They weren’t getting me to eat that stuff!
Of course, what goes around comes around, and now that I am all grown up and willing to eat just about anything (at least once), I have a six-year-old daughter whose preferred food in a restaurant is plain pasta with cheese–no sauce, just cheese.
Still, I don’t think she’s quite as picky as I was, which is remarkable, considering that a new study of twins indicates that fear of new foods is mostly inherited.
John Wardle, director of the Health Behavior Unit at University College London, and colleagues asked the parents of 5,390 pairs of twins (both identical and non-identical) to answer questions about how willing their children were to try new foods.
They found that identical twins, who of course have the same genetic makeup, were much more likely to have the same reactions to new foods than non-identical twins, whose genes are only as similar as any other pair of siblings.
Since both members of each set of twins lived in the same household, the conclusion was that genetics plays a greater role in determining eating preferences than environment: the fault lies in our genes, not in our home life, that we are picky.
The fear of new foods is called neophobia, and it’s not exactly rare in children. In fact, it’s a normal part of development.
Scientists believe it may have evolved to keep children from accidentally eating poisonous things, like certain mushrooms, before they could be taught what they could and couldn’t eat safely.
Neophobia typically shows up in kids at age two or three, which makes sense, since that’s when children are first capable of running around on their own and can have something in their mouths before parents can even react.
Most children grow out of neophobia, at least for the most part, by about age five–but not all do. (Picture me raising my hand, here.) Experts say, however, you shouldn’t give in to food tantrums from picky eaters.
These same experts (or possibly different ones–experts are so hard to tell apart) say that most people will learn to like a new food, even if they originally disliked it, by trying it 10 times, but excessively picky eaters may not.
There may be other genetics at work than simply a predilection for neophobia. For instance, the ability to taste bitterness in certain foods (broccoli and brussel sprouts come to mind–they tasted horribly bitter to me as a child, as did anything made with rhubarb) is also inherited.
Neophobia may also relate to other areas of personality. People who are naturally sensation seekers, always eager for new experiences, are more likely to try anything than people who are shy and retiring, some scientists say.
But whether inherited or not, neophobia can be overcome. I prove that every time I eat sushi.
“It can’t all be genetics,” according to Marcy Goldsmith, a nutrition and behavior specialist at Tufts University. “Parents need to offer their children new foods so they at least have a chance to try it.”
“It’s like learning to ride a bike,” says Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “Some children have a harder time learning and it takes longer, but it’s still worthwhile to teach them.”
And so, although my daughter continues to be a somewhat picky eater, I have high hopes for her.
She already likes some kinds of sushi, after all. Not to mention tomatoes, which I always hated. And avocadoes, which I’m still not fond of.
Surely capers, black olives and octopus can’t be far behind.