Flavor Perception and Preference Development in Human Infants

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Abstract

As most parents and caregivers are aware, feeding children a nutritionally balanced diet can be challenging. Children are born with a biological predisposition to prefer sweet and to avoid bitter foods such as green leafy vegetables. It has been hypothesized that this predisposition evolved to attract children to energy-dense foods while discouraging the consumption of toxins. Although this may have enhanced survival in environments historically characterized by food scarcity, it is clearly maladaptive in many of today's food environments where children are surrounded by an abundance of sweet-tasting, unhealthful foods and beverages that place them at risk for excessive weight gain. Because overweight or obese children tend to become overweight or obese adults who are at risk for a range of cardiovascular diseases, it is of primary importance to develop effective evidence-based strategies to promote the development of healthy eating styles. Fortunately, accumulating evidence suggests that, starting before birth and continuing throughout development, there are repeated and varied opportunities for children to learn to enjoy the flavors of healthful foods. Because flavors are transmitted from the maternal diet to amniotic fluid and breast milk, mothers who consume a variety of healthful foods throughout pregnancy and lactation provide their infants with an opportunity to learn to like these flavors. This in turn eases the transition to healthful foods at weaning. In contrast, infants fed formula learn to prefer its invariant flavor profile, which differs from breast milk, and may initially be less accepting of flavors not found in formula. This process can continue throughout weaning and into childhood if infants are repeatedly exposed to a variety of healthful foods, even if they initially dislike them. These early-life sensory experiences establish food preferences and dietary patterns that set the stage for lifelong dietary habits.

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