Sugar addiction and children

Why do children love sugar? We take a look at the scientific reasons behind why kids can seem addicted to sweet food and the way our taste buds change over time.

Child with cookie jar

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?

Child refusing broccoli at the table
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

Child with lots of sugary snacks
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. 

Beyond biology

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.

Discover more guides on family health

How much sugar should children have?
Is there too much sugar in baby food?
Healthy eating: what young children need
Healthy eating: what schoolchildren need
Behaviour in children: how diet can help

What are your thoughts on children and sugar? Share your comments below…

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.

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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17th May, 2016
Articles like these are very informative but they aren't going to solve the childhood obesity problem. Only parents can do that. It starts at home. My boyfriend has a 29-year-old daughter who is morbidly obese (300 lb+) and she easily feeds her 9-year-old daughter 80 grams of sugar a day (multiple Sprites and various sugary treats in lieu of dinner when she turns up her nose at anything remotely healthy)...4 times the recommended allowance. Last night she came for dinner at my house because it was my boyfriend's birthday and her mom let her forego fajitas and have not just 1 but 2 pieces of birthday cake instead. I believe she WANTS her daughter to look like her. We've tried talking to her numerous times and have tried encouraging better eating habits but she seems actually proud that her daughter is "off the charts" at the doctor's office. She actually dumps MORE sugar on her already pre-sweetened cereal. It has caused many fights between my boyfriend and I because we feel powerless to help her. Now she is expecting her second baby and she will be harming another human life. Until parents break the cycle of "loving their children to death with sugar," it will continue and eventually our world will look like the very round characters in Wall-E. Making your child obese is child abuse, and I wish more parents would recognize that.
18th May, 2016
You are right - it IS child abuse - and an unspeakably subtle and cruel form. I imagine this unhappy little girl not only consoles herself with inappropriate foodstuffs, but also uses it to demonstrate her solidity with her mother and anger at your bf - and if she realises that you and her granddad fight about it it will satisfy her even more (not suggesting that any of this is deliberate - most likely to be subconscious). Meanwhile her mother is able to rub her dad's nose in it without any effort at all, and seem to be a loving mother, too. You and your bf are on a hiding to nothing, I'm afraid; food is one of the easiest and most powerful forms of manipulation. You could try reverse psychology - give her what she wants. Or you could just not have any fast food or sweet stuff in the house when they come round. I don't envy you your task, but do try not to let it come between you and your bf.
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