Research shows that although there’s a natural attraction to sweetness and saltiness, taste preference has much to do with exposure, especially early exposure. Infants usually accept whatever they’re fed, and that’s why kids around the world reflect the culinary traditions of their parents. In some cultures kids will eat spicy, sour and even bitter foods, while in others kids have a narrower range, and stick with sweet fat and salty.
When do babies develop flavor preferences?
The window of maximum plasticity in flavor openness probably occurs very early on. Studies suggest that babies whose mothers ate certain foods during pregnancy or breastfeeding tended to like these same foods later on (the flavor of foods is reflected in amniotic fluid and in breast milk, therefore the baby is exposed to mom’s flavor preferences).
A study from the Monell Center in Philadelphia, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, tried to figure out the time frame of that sensitive period – the time in which baby’s mind and palate are open and accepting to new flavors – by an interesting experiment.
The study recruited about 70 babies whose parents selected to formula feed, and assigned them to either ordinary cow-milk based formula (Enfamil), or hydrolyzed protein formula (Nutramigen) at different ages and for varying periods of time.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve tried baby formulas, but I have. Mostly out of curiosity, I’ve tasted lots of the (vegetarian) food stuffs designed for babies. I mean no offense, and this is of course just my personal opinion, but infant formulas have a unique appeal to babies only – I doubt any adult would add this milk to his morning coffee. But even more astoundingly weird tasting are the hydrolyzed protein formulas. These are the formulas that use amino acids instead of whole proteins, and are given to babies with serious allergies and intolerances. Let’s just say that they have a distinct taste and smell and are a little bitter and sour. In fact, most babies older than 4 months will outright reject the hydrolyzed protein formulas unless they’ve been exposed to it in the first months of life.
The researchers in this study, led by Julie Mennella, found that exposing babies to hydrolyzed protein formulas for 1 month was enough to make the baby open to its taste at the age of 7.5 months. Exposure to hydrolyzed protein formulas for 7 months, as opposed to 3 or 1 month, made babies more accepting of the formula, suggesting that the dose and duration of exposure matter, but what mattered most was timing.
Exposing babies to the unusual flavor was most effective when it occurred really early, and the babies accepted hydrolyzed protein formulas better at 1.5 months and 2.5 months than at 3.5 months. At 3.5 to 4 months the flavor acceptance window seemed to close and the babies just refused the Nutramigen!
Not all is lost
Although it’s easiest to introduce new flavor during the maximum acceptance window, it’s never too late to expand your kid’s palate and broaden their interest in healthy food. As we know, young kids will absorb a new language quickly if immersed in it – grammar, accent and all – while older kids and adults will have to put in more of an effort. But I think learning to enjoy new, healthy flavors is always possible, just like it’s always possible to acquire a new language – it will just take more work, and perhaps a dedicated tutor.
Five tips for developing kids’ healthy flavor preferences
• Eat well as a mom-to-be: If mom eats her fruits and veggies, baby is exposed to their flavor in-utero, a double win!
• Breastfeed if you can: Breast milk is the ideal baby food for so many reasons. When it comes to flavor development remember that unlike formula, which is uniform, no two breast milk meals are the same, as breast milk reflects mom’s diet; therefore a breastfed baby is exposed to more flavors than a baby who is formula fed. Studies show that breastfeeding may facilitate the acceptance of new foods in childhood.
• Stay away from the sweet-salty-fatty trap: Babies and kids have a natural affinity to sweet and salt. Our job as parents is to expose our young ones to what’s good and healthy, not to what they’ll surely eat. Do your kids a favor and don’t create an expectation that all food should be sweet – expecting the usual sweet –salt-fat trifecta is a preference that can lead to a poor diet and obesity.
• Expose young kids to a variety of healthy foods: Let them experience many flavors and textures, especially in their first two years of life.
• Repeat exposures: Many studies show that repeated exposure works. Even if a vegetable is initially disliked it’s worth persisting at least eight times – kids do change their mind.
Early exposure matters, but it’s never too late to move to healthier eating habits and develop a fondness of wholesome, plant-based foods!