Taste Buds in Training

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Girl eating apple. Paul Bradbury/OJO/Getty Images

Perhaps the best way to explore the workings of the human palate is with one’s tongue in one’s cheek- assuming you carefully avoid biting it.  I suppose I am doing just that when I note that taste buds are adaptable little fellas; when they can’t be with the food they love, they learn to love the food they’re with.

But it really is true.  One of the more potent determinants of dietary preference is familiarity.

For adults, the implications include the potential need for, and opportunity of, taste bud rehab.  Taste buds can be corrupted by bathing in excess of sugar and salt all day.  But they can recover by the slow, steady substitution of more wholesome choices in every food category.  By acclimating to ever “cleaner,” more wholesome foods without superfluous additions of often “stealth” sugar, salt, and...whatever- we can all come to prefer such foods.  My wife and like to call this loving food that loves us back.

For children, though, the opportunity is even greater.  When taste buds are in training, they can be taught to like all the right foods in the first place.  The evidence of the adaptability of young taste buds is all around us, spanning the globe.  Babies raised in cultures that like spicy food- wind up liking spicy food.  Japanese babies grow up to like raw fish.  Indian babies grow up to like curry.

  From snails to sassafras, kale to kimchi, and habaneros to vegemite- babies learn to prefer the foods their families feed them.

The evidence is clear that taste preference begins even before birth.  The maternal diet during pregnancy starts to shape taste preference.  It is propagated further by flavors introduced from the maternal diet into breast milk.

The earlier one starts training taste buds to love food that loves them back, the better.  But it’s never too late.

Starting late, though, may run afoul of some resistance.  Since kids like what’s familiar, changing food choice can be challenging.

But it’s far from impossible.  For grocery items, a system like NuVal, or the free food label literacy program developed in my lab, Nutrition Detectives, can empower you and your family to trade up to better choices within any given food category.  While swapping out chips for broccoli may provoke a revolt, trading up to better chips generally does not.  You can get there in baby steps.

For dishes, sometimes it’s what kids don’t even notice that matters most.  There are opportunities to work highly nutritious ingredients into familiar and favored dishes, preserving taste and texture while improving nutrition.  I don’t know anyone better at this than my wife, Catherine- who produced palates that favor wholesome foods in all five of our children.

She offers her expertise, and her recipes, in a special feature on the topic on her website, Cuisinicity.com.

  Help yourself.

Young taste buds are in training.  Apply some savvy, some skillpower, and some stealth- and you can raise children who cultivate a taste for healthful eating.  Your family, like mine, can love food that loves you back.

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