There are many, many factors which can contribute to childhood feeding problems, such as a child’s temperament, problems with chewing or swallowing or physiological problems like digestive issues or allergies. And sometimes, children simply reject new foods because of the age and developmental stage they are at. Did you know though, that how your child experiences taste can be part of picky eating?
How we perceive flavours is incredibly complicated. It involves our gustatory sense (that’s ‘taste’ to you and I) our olfactory sense (smell) and how our nerves respond to the chemicals in our food. As with most things, there is a little nature and a little nurture at play here: some of how children experience flavour depends on what they have been exposed to - even in the womb. But also, some of it is genetic. Acclaimed taste researcher, Linda Bartochuk from the University of Florida, developed the concept of ‘supertasters’ - people who experience taste more instensely than the majority of the population.*
It is fascinating to think that you could be sitting down enjoying a meal with friends and family and each individual could be having a different experience of the same dish. It’s like colour - two people can be talking about ‘sky blue’ or ‘olive green’ but what they are actually seeing or imagining may be poles apart. I was reminded of this recently when an argument with my husband over whether a paint colour was blue or turquoise, led me to the discovery that men actually see blues differently from women, so really, we were both right (although I was right). Every individual inhabits a unique sensory world and no one can ever know what it is really like to be someone else!
Bartochuk’s work on supertasters began with a focus on how people perceive bitter tastes, and this is the bit that is especially relevant to picky eating. Some studies suggest that children’s sensitivity to bitterness is connected to the rejection of certain foods ** and to me, this makes intuitive sense. At a primal level, we associate bitterness with toxicity and are programmed to avoid it. A child who experiences bitterness very intensely may reject bitter foods with an intensity to match.
Scientists have even identified a specific gene that determines how we experience the bitterness in certain vegetables in the cabbage family; the so called ‘brussel sprout gene’ or TAS2R38, as scientists fondly call it. This gives us pause for thought when we consider that some people view a child eating up their cabbage as ‘good behaviour’. In fact, one child may eat their cabbage and the other may reject it, not because one is naughty and the other isn’t, but because they are living in very different sensory landscapes.
Genes and experience are not the only issues when it comes to tasting, age is a factor too: Children experience taste differently from adults, especially sweetness and bitterness. We can never make the assumption that something objectively 'tastes nice' because taste is inherently subjective.
So if your child seems to experience taste very intensely, maybe they are a supertaster. If they shy away from the broccoli, perhaps they are a proud owner of gene TAS2R38. Or maybe they just have that craving for sweetness and dislike of bitterness that is typical of their age and stage.
I’m not advocating the erasure of all veggies from the menu until adolescence - far from it. Exposure is an important part of helping children develop a positive relationship with food. What I am suggesting though, is that we approach children’s preferences with empathy - we take a moment to acknowledge that we all experience foods differently and we respect children’s autonomy in relation to eating.
* Bartoshuk, L. M., Fast, K., Karrer, T. A., Marino, S., Price, R. A., & Reed, D. A. (1992). PROP supertasters and the perception of sweetness and bitterness. Chem. Senses, 17, 594.)
** Blissett, J., & Fogel, A. (2013). Intrinsic and extrinsic influences on children’s acceptance of new foods. Physiology & Behavior, 121, 89–95.
*** [Mennella, J. A., & Bobowski, N. K. (2015). The sweetness and bitterness of childhood: Insights from basic research on taste preferences. Physiology & behavior, 152, 502-507.].