The development of food preferences begins very early, even before birth. And likes and dislikes change as we grow into adults. The intent of this article is to discuss some aspects of the early development of food preferences.

Early Development of Food Preferences

Taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savory) preferences have a strong innate component. Sweet, savory, and salty substances are innately preferred, whereas bitter and many sour substances are innately rejected. However, these innate tendencies can be modified by pre- and postnatal experiences. Components of flavor, detected by the olfactory system (responsible for smell), are strongly influenced by early exposure and learning beginning in utero and continuing during early milk (breast milk or formula) feedings. These early experiences set the stage for later food choices and are important in establishing life-long food habits.

The terms taste and flavor often are confused. Taste is determined by the gustatory system, located in the mouth. Flavor is determined by taste, smell and chemosensory irritation (detected by receptors in the skin throughout the head; and in particularly in regards to food receptors in the mouth and nose. Examples include the burn of hot peppers and the cooling effect of menthol).

Children should be fed nutritious foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables) from an early age. Health organizations worldwide recommend multiple servings of fruits and vegetables per day (between five-13), depending on one’s caloric requirement. Despite such recommendations, children are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, and in many cases they do not eat any.

A 2004 study investigating eating patterns of American children revealed that toddlers ate more fruits than vegetables and 1 in 4 did not even consume one vegetable on some days. They were more likely to be eating fatty foods and sweet-tasting snacks and beverages. Of the top five vegetables consumed by toddlers, none was a dark green vegetable, those that are usually most bitter. This can be partly explained by the innate tendency to dislike bitter.

Flavor Likes and Dislikes

The preference for specific flavors are determined by:

  • Innate factors
  • Environmental influences
  • Learning
  • Interactions among these.

To reiterate, taste preferences are generally strongly influenced by inborn (innate) factors. For example, sweet foods and beverages are highly preferred by plant-eating animals, probably because sweetness reflects the presence of caloric sugars, and may indicate non-toxicity. Natural preferences for sweet-tasting compounds change developmentally — infants and children generally have higher preferences than adults — and they can be drastically changed by experience.

Bitter-tasting substances are innately disliked, presumably because most bitter compounds are toxic. Plants have developed systems to protect themselves from being eaten, and plant-eating organisms have evolved sensory systems to avoid being poisoned. With consistent exposure and intake children may learn to like certain bitter foods, particularly some vegetables.

In contrast to taste preferences, flavor preferences detected by the sense of smell are generally highly affected with learning early in life, even in utero. The sensory environment, in which the fetus lives, changes as a reflection of the food choices of the mother as dietary flavors are transmitted via amniotic fluid. Experiences with such flavors lead to heightened preferences for these flavors shortly after birth and at weaning.

Prenatal experiences with food flavors, which are transmitted from the mother’s diet to amniotic fluid, lead to greater acceptance and enjoyment of these foods during weaning. In one study, infants whose mothers drank carrot juice during the last trimester of pregnancy enjoyed carrot-flavored cereals more than infants whose mothers did not drink carrot juice or eat carrots.

Influence of Breastfeeding

Exposure to a flavor in mothers’ milk influences the infants’ liking and acceptance of that flavor. This is seen when the flavor is encountered in a food.

In one study, researchers found that breast-fed infants were more accepting of peaches than formula-fed infants. It is likely that the increased acceptance of fruit could be due to more exposure to fruit flavors, due to their mothers eating more fruits during lactation. If mothers eat fruits and vegetables, breast-fed infants will be exposed to these dietary choices by experiencing the flavors in the mothers’ milk. This increased exposure to various flavors contributes to greater fruit and vegetable consumption in childhood.

Infants develop long-lasting dietary preferences very early in life. Pregnant and nursing women are encouraged to consume nutritious diets with a variety of flavors. Infants of women who do not breastfeed should be exposed to a variety of flavors, especially those associated with fruits and vegetables.