Sweet, salty, bitter: How kids develop food preferences

Food preferences develop early

We develop our likes and dislikes for flavour quite early in life, even before birth. These preferences change as we grow. Sweetness and saltiness are innately preferred.

Scientists have found that plant-eating animals prefer sweet foods since the sweetness suggests a high concentration of caloric sugars, and is likely, non-toxic.

Bitterness is innately disliked as the majority of bitter substances are likely to be toxic. For survival, plants have developed mechanisms to cope with plant-eating animals.

Plant-eating animals on the other hand have developed intense sensory systems to avoid eating poisons.

Fortunately, food preferences can change with consistent exposure. Although humans are born with a sweet tooth, we can “learn” to enjoy bitterness.

Little did we know, the food and beverage industry has been using this knowledge to their advantage.

With marketing and advertising strategies, they have shaped unhealthy eating habits in children by promoting the development of preferences for health-wrecking foods, which may persist into adulthood.

The role of the food and beverage industry

As healthy as it can be, healthy foods (think broccoli and carrots) do not take up much space in the advertising segment. Children watch advertisements for junk foods all the time, making them susceptible to forming bad eating habits.

RM20 million is spent every day to market foods with a high content of sugar, fat and salt, which is absolutely unsuitable for the recommended energy intake of children.

Studies show that persuasive advertisements can attract very young children, making them crave for unhealthy foods that they haven’t even tasted.

As unhealthy food preferences are directly associated with obesity and other health complications, the consequences of such advertisements can have a detrimental effect on children.

More worrying is that there’s almost no regulation on the marketing of food. The lack thereof allows manufacturers to push child-directed marketing of unhealthy foods, contributing to unhealthy food preferences.

What parents can do about this

For all parents, it’s important to learn about current food marketing practices and their associated health consequences.

By being well-informed, parents can act accordingly, protecting their children from negative media exposure, while limiting the influence of it on their children’s food choices.

Sometimes, children are exposed to unhealthy foods while at school.

If this happens, they should raise their objections during parent-teacher meetings. Tell school staff about how these types of foods may hurt their children’s health in the long run and offer some healthy alternatives.

Get other parents involved if needed. Children need to be surrounded with healthy food choices at an early age to form healthy eating habits that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

This article first appeared in hellodoktor.com and was reviewed by Dr Duyen Le. The Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.