Children’s tastes in food

When I was a kid, my mother will confirm, I was a picky eater, the sort of kid who ordered a hamburger and fries at a Chinese restaurant, hated to have different kinds of food touching each other on the plate, and wouldn’t touch spinach, broccoli or Brussels sprouts with a ten-foot fork.

My own daughter is a tad on the fussy side herself, preferring pasta-and-cheese-hold-the-tomato-sauce over anything else. (Although unlike her father at her age, she also loves veggies–even broccoli.)

We all have anecdotes of what we as children or our own children did, didn’t, will or will not eat. Anecdotes don’t help much when it comes to understanding children’s food preferences scientifically, however. For that you need a controlled study–and the world’s largest on the ability of children and young people to taste, and what they like, has just been published.

Conducted by Danish Science Communication and food scientists from the University of Copenhagen, the study involved 8,900 Danish schoolchildren, who, as part of their natural science classes, took part in tests designed to discover how well they could recognize sweet and sour tastes, establish what levels of sweetness or sourness they preferred, and even count how many taste buds they had (which involved coloring their tongues bright blue, one sure way to spark up an otherwise ordinary school day). They also answered questions about their eating habits and fussiness.

Several previously unrecognized facts emerged.

First of all, the girls in the study were better at recognizing all concentrations of both sweet and sour tastes than the boys were. (And, yes, this superior tasting ability carries over into men and women, too.) The boys needed approximately 10 percent more sourness and 20 percent more sweetness to recognize each taste.

Since both boys and girls had roughly the same number of taste buds, the difference must lie in the brain: that is, girls’ brains process the information from the tongue differently (and apparently more efficiently) than boys’ brains do.

The study’s biggest surprise was the discovery that one out of three schoolchildren actually would prefer non-sugary soft drinks: in blind taste tests using ten different variants of the same soft drink, thirty percent preferred the version with little or no sugar.

On the other hand, just about half of the pupils liked the sweetest variant most of all. The question is whether that’s an innate preference or something that is learned because children are so often given sweet drinks and candy.

Differences between the sexes cropped up in this area of the study, too. Boys generally preferred the super-sweet version of the soft drink. In fact, boys generally preferred more extreme flavours, sweet and sour–possibly because their sense of taste is slightly less sensitive. Girls preferred more muted flavours.

In the questionnaire portion of the study, more surprises. About seventy percent of the pupils, when asked about their likes and dislikes, said they like fish. And just under 60 percent, both boys and girls, said they don’t consider themselves to be fussy eaters.

(Of course, my pasta-by-preference daughter also claims she’s not a fussy eater, so you might want to take that self-assessment with a–pardon the expression–grain of salt.)

Bodil Allesen-Holm, the food scientist who headed up the study, says its results should be useful to both parents and the food industry, which could use it to develop more varied food products and snacks for children and young people.

A final note: the study found that as children grow, their tastes change noticeably. The ability to recognize different tastes increases with age, with the greatest shift happening at around 13 or 14, when children become more sensitive to sour tastes.

At the same time, children’s love of very sweet flavours starts to weaken. This is also the time when more children start to declare they are not fussy eaters, which makes sense: past studies have found that children who like sour flavours tend not to be as fussy as children who don’t like sour things.

My daughter has been known to suck a lemon slice with every appearance of enjoyment.

I’m taking that as a good omen.

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