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Taste, and choice, of food moulded as a baby

25-Mar-2005

The foods that children, and later adults, choose are linked to taste profiles set at a very early age, suggest new findings from the UK, reports Lindsey Partos.

Psychologists at the University of Birmingham found that babies weaned onto foods like rusks go on to have a preference for beige foods such as crisps and chips.

Their findings suggest that children build up a "visual prototype" of foods they like to eat.

 

As a result, kids will reject foods that fail to fit into this category, without even tasting them.

 

Wider exposure to a variety of foods in the formative years, particularly fruit and vegetables, could increase their taste appeal.

 

"Where possible, parents should give their children the same food that they are eating provided it is a balanced diet containing fruit and vegetables, to introduce them to new colours, textures and shapes," recommends Dr Gillian Harris, a clinical psychologist at the University of Birmingham.

 

The study sheds further light on the mysterious dynamics behind taste, a key driver in the €3.2 trillion global food industry.

 

A greater understanding of thephysiology of consumers (including the youngest), and their genetic make-up, could lead to stronger market advantages.

 

According to the Birmingham university study infants who are introduced to a wide range of new tastes, including fruit and vegetables, in the first year of life show an increased preference forthose tastes later on.

 

"By getting them to try many different foods in the early stages of life, they are likely to go on to liking those foods," say the researchers.

 

A child who likes biscuits will try a new similar looking food if an adult tells them it is a biscuit.

 

Having eaten the new food, and if the taste is similar to known foods, then the new example of biscuit will be kept in the child's repertoire of liked foods.

 

By contrast, if a brussel sprout is called a 'chocolate biscuit' then the sprout would be rejected, probably because of the visual disparity between sprout and biscuit.

 

At two years of age a child will recognise foods that it has eaten in the past and that it likes, and it will start to respond to slight changes in appearance, for example, a biscuit that is broken.

 

Although slight changes in appearance are more acceptable, a food that does not match the visual prototype will be rejected, without tasting, as a 'not known' food.

 

The UK study builds on ongoing research into the world of taste. Last month , for example, scientists blew food formulation wide open by asserting that each human carries his or her own distinctive set of taste receptors.

 

How an individual perceives taste comes down to a single gene, they say.

 

Researchers at Monell Chemical Senses Center in the US related individual perception of the bitter-tasting compounds PTC and PROP to variation in a bitter taste receptor gene known as hTAS2R38.

 

They claim their findings have provided "an improved understanding" of why individuals differ in their ability to taste some bitter compounds.

 

They can now use their procedure to understand why people are sensitive to other tastes, such as sweet or umami (meaty), as well as flavours and other types of bitter compounds.

 

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