The diet of infants and young children can not only determine their health during childhood but can also influence the type of foods that they prefer in later life and, consequently, contributes to their long-term health1,2. Increasingly, research indicates that variables in early life, including the foetal environment and childhood food habits, may have an impact on risk factors for chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers in later life2,3.
Vegetables are an essential part of a healthy balanced diet and a low intake is associated with negative health outcomes2.
As food preferences established in early childhood have been shown to track into adulthood, infants and young children should be encouraged to accept a variety of vegetables to promote healthy eating habits that last a lifetime4.
Origins of taste preferences in infants
Babies have an innate preference for sweet tastes, which may be why parents find introducing children to fruit much easier than vegetables, many of which can be bitter tasting1,5. It is possible, however, to influence the development of taste preferences during infancy and childhood through repeated exposure to initially rejected tastes4-8. In effect, babies learn to accept a variety of flavours.
The development of taste preferences begins in the womb5. As the taste buds and olfactory system develop during the first trimester, the fetus is exposed to taste through the amniotic fluid which contains molecules derived from the mother’s diet1,5,. Flavour learning continues after birth as breast milk also contains flavour components determined by the mother’s diet1,5.
Weaning: a critical stage
Research shows that between 4 and 7 months, infants are sensitive to accepting new flavours and textures5-12. Food neophobia, a reluctance to accept new foods, is displayed during infancy and into early childhood, peaking between 2 and 5 years of age5,8. Therefore, this transitional period of weaning from milk to solid foods is a critical window in the development of taste preferences.
One reason parents may find it more challenging to introduce bitter tasting foods, like some vegetables, is that an infant’s facial reaction can be interpreted as one of dislike compared to their reaction to sweet tastes5,13. Infants given bitter tastes display frowning, head shaking and nose wrinkling, which parents may interpret as dislike and stop offering the food5,13.
Despite this initial negative response to bitter tastes, research shows that repeated exposure to an initially disliked taste can have a positive effect and alter an infant’s preference8,11.
Persistence is key, however, and it can take between 8 and 10 attempts for an infant to readily accept an initially disliked food8,11.
Supporting parents to introduce vegetables
Since a diet low in vegetables may pose increased risks for the development of chronic diseases later in life1-3, it is important that children are encouraged to develop healthy eating habits from the start. In order to help parents introduce a variety of vegetables, we have created a simple process that has a vegetable-first approach to weaning.