Children seem to have a much higher tolerance for sugary foods, but how do our taste buds change as we get older? Registered dietitian Dr Frankie Phillips takes a look at the scientific reasons behind our preferences for sweet flavours when we’re younger.
Babies, breastmilk and evolution
Babies have an innate preference for sweet tastes, starting with the slightly sweet taste of breast milk. They also have more sensitive taste buds (and many more of them) so new foods can offer an intense explosion of flavours, which might not always be welcome. A baby’s mouth has more nerve endings per square millimetre than any other part of their body, which might also explain why babies explore new objects with their mouths.
In addition, children have an inbuilt survival instinct which means they will search out energy-giving foods. Therefore, it’s not surprising kids have a genetic disposition for the sweet stuff that provides quick, easy-to-access calories!
What is a supertaster?
Some children find new (especially bitter) tastes more acceptable because their taste buds are programmed to be less sensitive. Others are ‘supertasters’, meaning that they have a heightened sense of taste. It’s partly a survival mechanism since many poisonous plants also taste bitter or sour, making them less appealing, so we are hardwired to avoid them from hunter-gatherer times. These supertasters might find the bitter taste of brassica and cruciferous vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower, very challenging. However, these tastes can be learned, and there are nutritional advantages gained from eating these foods.
Do taste buds change as we get older?
Just because your child loves sweets now, doesn’t mean it will always be that way. After all, most of us have dropped our fixation with penny sweets and fizzy drinks somewhere along the way as we’ve got older. Taste buds routinely die out and are replaced so our tastes can change all the time, but as we age our bodies stop replacing taste buds in the same way, so we gradually have fewer taste buds. The taste buds we do have also shrink so by the time you reach old age, your sense of taste may need more intense flavours to stimulate it.
Searching for that sugar hit
Research has shown that those with more sensitivity to bitter tastes may additionally be more sensitive to sweet tastes. It is also suggested that children vary in their ability to recognise sweetness, showing that some children are 20 times better at detecting sugar than others, and that this may be partly genetically determined. For these children, reducing the amount of sugar they eat might be more difficult to achieve. However, researchers also found that more obese children had higher sensitivity to sugar and recognised sweetness at a lower threshold. Research into this area is in the early stages.
Food isn’t just about flavour. The smells, visual cues and past experiences, as well as cultural norms, can all influence how acceptable a food is. Ultimately, although biology plays a role in the type of foods we eat, parents play an essential part as role models that lead the way to a healthy diet in their children.
Eating together as a family and demonstrating that you enjoy a wide variety of tastes is crucial in helping to foster a well-trained healthy palate. So even if your little one is turning his or her nose up at some tastes, don’t give up yet, just put it aside for today! The message is to relax but just keep trying.
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This article was last reviewed on 7th October 2019 by registered dietitian Frankie Phillips.
Dr Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and public health nutritionist specialising in infant and toddler nutrition with over 20 years’ experience.
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