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Establishing the Taste for Nutrition

BY: Toni Tarver
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Before their second birthday, many children have begun to develop preferences for processed carbohydrates, in the form of added sugars and sugar-sweetened beverages, and sodium. As a consequence, scientific evidence shows that susceptibility for hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and obesity are rooted early in life. Several factors conspire to predispose children to consume diets that may lead to obesity, but namely, children’s taste preferences are innate and driven by evolution and environment. During the session “Flavor Perception, Satiety, and Nutrition: Implications Throughout the Life Cycle” on Thursday afternoon, June 28, speakers explained the science behind taste perception, flavor preferences, satiety, and nutrition.

Neural pathways were originally designed for seeking sweet tastes—it is human’s oldest reward system. It is thus not surprising that within hours of birth, infants exhibit a strong preference for sweet tastes. The taste for salt develops around the time infants reach 4 months of age. The intensity of sweet taste is elevated throughout childhood and early adolescence; that is, children have a preference for sweeter substances than adults do. Sweets even have an analgesic effect on infants, halting crying and inducing calm. And the liking of salt presumably evolved to attract children (and adults) to needed minerals.

According to speaker Maria Veldhuizen, Yale University, affective responses to taste are not learned; they are intrinsic. But affective responses to flavors are learned; the responses are dependent on consistency of exposure, and people learn to like what is available. This may explain why the use of nonnutritive sweeteners in food and beverages may cut calories, but it still strengthens children’s predilection for sweets.

Most food industry professionals know that overconsumption of salty and sweet foods is linked to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. In the interest of giving children a better chance at a healthy life, speaker Julie Mennella, Monell Chemical Senses Center, suggested that the food industry not prey on children’s taste and flavor vulnerabilities. A healthy dietary intervention must begin early, she said.

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