ScienceMade Influence Blog
By Caitlin Huang
Whether its seafood or brussels sprouts, everyone knows someone who refuses to eat certain foods. In my family, it’s me: seafood and egg have been off the table since the day I could chew. Though, I still call myself a foodie. On the other hand, there are also people who will eat absolutely anything… even cockroaches. What causes such distinct taste preferences from person to person?
Many children are picky eaters and will turn their heads at anything green even if it is something they might actually enjoy, instead turning to all forms of pasta and dessert. Similar to music preference and how some people prefer heavy metal or country and others can’t stand it, people also have unique taste preferences. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are picky eaters, but their taste buds may just be more sensitive to certain flavors. Thus, forcing your child to finish their plate before they can have dessert won’t help them like the food any more than they did before.
Papillae, or the small dots on your tongue, are your taste buds, and they allow your brain to register whether something is sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami. Taste buds have microscopic hairs called microvilli and when molecules from foods hit them, messages are sent to dedicated parts of the brain along with the smell and texture of the food. As we age, we lose the number of taste receptors we have, and this can explain why the foods we once hated, we like now. This could also explain why we cannot stomach the foods we once loved.
But why are some people’s taste buds more sensitive than others? There was research surrounding the idea that the foods that a mother eats while pregnant can heavily affect the “pickiness” of the child after they are born. A mother that eats everything during pregnancy will probably give birth to one of those children that won’t shy away from an oddly colored dish, whereas a mother that has a very limited diet will most likely lead to a “pickier” child. My own mother never ate seafood while pregnant with me because the fishy smell made her sick-- possibly explaining my own repulsion to it. But how does the baby know what food the mother is eating? Amniotic fluid holds the flavors of the foods the mother ate for the day and is the sole food source a baby gets in the womb. The more accustomed they become to certain flavors, the more likely they will eat it after birth. However, this isn’t to say that this is the end all be all. During the months that the baby is drinking their mother’s milk, the mother can still introduce them to more foods. The most important thing is exposing young children to all different flavors.
Though minor picky eating is not a problem, there can be extreme cases. Those diagnosed with Avoidant/ Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), or Extreme Picky Eating Disorder, refuse to try new foods even as they age, which heavily restricts their diet. They tend to stick to simple foods like pizza and bread. The belief that they may choke or be poisoned by new foods can be due to past trauma with food or accidents the mother experienced while the child was in the womb. The treatment for this is somatic therapy.
Generally, there really is no “cure” for picky eating. People may grow accustomed to foods through repeated exposure and cultural norms, but oftentimes, forcing a kid to eat every last pea on their plate could actually cause them to develop lasting contempt towards certain foods. Rather, parents could experiment with various recipes, combining familiar dishes with less appealing foods.
Cover Image is in the public domain.