Taste Perception, Sweet Cravings & Childhood Food Exposure

What, & how much our children eat is something that parents & guardians worry about from day one. Food intake often equates to how well they sleep so this can become an absolute priority for many! When a child gets a little older worries may evolve towards weight, behaviour & mental health – all of which are hugely impacted by a child’s diet.

From weaning, concerns over food preferences are really common as youngsters will often reject the more healthful but bitter tasting foods such as green vegetables which can be distressing for all involved.

What is important to understand is that this preference for sweet tastes reflects children’s basic biology. In infancy this is what draws them to their mother’s milk & as they grow it reflects their need for more calories but also their smaller size – they can only physically take on so much fuel & their bodies need a consistent stream, so they will veer towards the quickly liberated (sweet) stuff.

In spite of this natural inclination however, research shows the importance of feeding your child a variety of different foods & flavours, including those with more bitter tastes. It’s not just that they need an array of different vitamins, minerals & phytonutrients, they also need to feel comfortable with a variety of food on their plate. Whether a child does or does not eat these foods is not necessarily the point here – it’s the exposure that is important.

The more a child is exposed to different foods, the more familiar they become. Neophobia is the dislike or refusal to eat new foods which often arises during toddler years.

Research shows that a child needs to be exposed to a new food between 6 & 15 times before they feel comfortable eating it. If a food becomes familiar, it becomes acceptable which ultimately affects preference.

Again this goes back to innate behaviours; when a child becomes more mobile they are more likely to encounter something that could be poisonous (tracking back to hunter gatherer times) so a decreased inclination to try new things at this stage is an inbuilt protective measure.

Researchers have also found that the sensation of sweetness is context dependent, acquiring meaning through associative learning. Put simply this means that children can develop a sense of what should or should not taste sweet & they learn pretty quickly how a sweet food is supposed to taste. In practical terms this means if you are used to giving your child a packaged tomato sauce with added sugar (which most shop bought versions contain), instead of a homemade sauce (sweetened with some added sweet potato or other root vegetable), a homemade version would get rejected pretty quickly as the sweetness will not be on the same level as the sauce from a jar.

What many of us will be all too familiar with is that a child’s heightened preference for sweet tastes can make them vulnerable to overconsumption (especially considering as both children and adults are constantly bombarded with the temptation for overly processed & palatable junk food).

Researchers have shown that adding sugar to the diet of toddlers & children under 10 years, leads to a heightened response to sweetness later on in teenage & adult years. This will not just relate to the sensory interaction at a tastebud level but also reflect a reworking of digestive bacterial balance which then creates a cycle of craving, continuing in this pattern, & dissatisfaction with natural flavours.

Nutrient deficiencies such as zinc, can reduce our sense of taste making food taste boring & bland. Children will then seek highly flavoured foods to achieve some kind of taste stimulation. Low iron levels can also be hugely perturbing (especially prevalent in children who drink a lot of/rely on cow’s milk as a form of nutrition as this prevents iron uptake) as it will impact emotional stability & attention levels. Frustrated behaviour patterns, inattention at school, these would all be suggestions to have these nutrients assessed.

Biochemically some children, especially those with learning difficulties such as ADHD or autism, may become addicted to foods such as wheat, dairy, sugar or food additives, which then will constrain a child’s palate. When these foods are taken out, tastes develop & widen to include more nutritious foods. It is also important to note that such examples aren’t ‘easy fixes’ & we often see cases where 1 child is struggling but due to the potential chaos caused when their preferred foods are removed from the offering the cycle continues. If you would like more information on this area particularly please be in touch as we have a wealth of resources to share.

Many children will go through phases of fussy eating & this is completely normal. However, ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder) is an eating disorder that is becoming increasingly common. It is more likely to be seen in youngsters with learning difficulties but it is by no means exclusive to this group.

This is where picky eating becomes extreme, the diet becomes ever more narrow, eating generally could be avoided, & it is not related to body image/weight but rather an emotional coping strategy or actual fear of certain foods (on the most part).

If you think your child is showing signs of being scared of food, using food avoidance as a coping strategy, or displaying an extreme sensitivity to certain tastes of textures, here are some resources which you can turn to for guidance. Of course we will happily discuss & aid appropriate referrals if you need too.


HOW TO LIMIT YOUR CHILD’S EXPOSURE TO SUGAR

  • Start weaning with bitter foods such as spinach, broccoli or kale.
  • Milk & fruit should be the sweetest tastes a child has until the age of 1 (& ideally older – there is no guideline limit for added sugar for children under the age of 4). Alternative milks should ideally be nut or hemp seed based & homemade to avoid overly sweet flavours, oat & rice milks would not be appropriate.
  • Get your child used to bitter flavours by adding herbs such as parsley, coriander, sage or thyme to your cooking (you can use these herbs from day 1 of weaning).
  • Sweeten baked goods, pancakes & savoury sauces with apple purée, sweet potato, squash, peas, carrot, beetroot & pure coconut milk.
  • Avoid fruit juices which are incredibly sweet (as unlike the whole fruit, there is no fibre to buffer the effects of the fruit sugar). Combine cucumber, celery & a minority amount of beetroot or carrot then dilute ¼ juice to ¾ water if you wish.
  • Make sure your child’s snacks contain some protein & fat to balance their blood sugar & prevent energy spikes & subsequent crashes (yogurt, nuts & seed butters, hummus & egg are all good protein snack options).

INTO ADULTHOOD

Preference for sweet tastes should decline during late teens, which is when most children stop growing. However, it is not uncommon for adults to play into their childhood tendencies & reach for sweeter foods.

If sweet foods were used as a reward strategy or ‘treat’ when we were younger, these foods are often the first port of call that we turn to as adults if we need cheering up or have had a stressful day.

Unlike children, adults have the ability to absorb & utilise energy over a long period of time, meaning our need for sweeter foods naturally declines. Often the key to reducing our sugar intake is to break the chain of using sugar as a comfort or a crutch.

For many who seek sugar as a flavour for their foods (for example if you have sugar in your tea, or put honey in your porridge) a simple retraining of your taste buds is all it takes to reduce your reliance on sugar. This can take as little as a week & can be remarkably effective, & it’s often the peripheral, systemic impacts on mood, skin, sleep & energy our clients are most amazed by. If you would like to give this a go find our ‘Sugar Free 7 Challenge’ here. It is entirely free & you can do it at your own pace from your own starting level.


5 STEPS TO RETRAIN YOUR TASTE BUDS AND REDUCE SUGAR CRAVINGS

  • Make sure you are eating enough! Each meal should contain sufficient protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates & fibrous vegetables. Don’t take out carbs just rejig your portions slightly. When putting together your meals think majority non-starchy veg, then comes protein & garnish with complex carbs & a measured portion of healthy fats. More info on portion sizing can be found in this IGTV video.
  • Be mindful of flavourings, condiments, rubs & sauces – this is where the majority of unexpected sugar tends to hide.
  • If sweets or chocolate are part of your daily routine, switch to dried fruit for a few days, then go to fresh, then mix fruit + naturally sweet veg such as peppers & tomatoes. Always paired with some yogurt, nuts or dried peas or pulses (we love Brave peas or Boundless Activated Nuts & Seeds).

Written by Florence de Walden

Associate Nutritional Therapist