Every parent experiences some form of the struggle to get a picky eater to eat vegetables. You pack them in their school lunches, and they come back untouched. You sit down to feed them, and they cover their mouths, or turn away–even run away. You hold a stand-off just to make your child eat a tiny piece of broccoli.
But, you are busy and simply don’t have the time to negotiate food with your child. Nevertheless, when you chat with your buddies about your frustration, they tell you their kids eat up every vegetable like a vacuum cleaner. Why are some kids picky while some are not? Researchers have discovered that the secret could lay within the science of flavor and taste, and within your child’s genetics.
In sensory science, flavor is not just a short description written on a menu or box. Rather, it is a network of senses that is made up of taste, smell, and texture. This is how it is described by Sensory Science Professor, Hildegarde Heymann of University of California, Davis. Earl Carlstens, Professor of Neurobiology and Physiology, University of California, Davis explains that together with ambiance and old memories, your brain gives you a total perception of the food you eat. In terms of flavor, if any one component goes wrong or missing, it turns bad. Since every human body has sensory organs to sense flavors, it is reasonable to assume that a child can discern them. Since their taste buds are still growing and their brains are still collecting memories, they may have a different perception from their parents towards the same foods.
Taste is an evolutionary survival technique. Sweet and salty signal nutritious carbohydrates, while bitter and sour caution poisons. Undoubtedly, children love sweet. They seem to follow a survival instinct similar to our ancient ancestors who needed them to survive in a hostile environment. Sweetness “is a direct measure of the nutritive value of a food.” describes Robert F. Margolskee of Monell Chemical Senses Center. On the other hand, “bitter is a warning.” says Neil DeGrasse Tyson of Nova Science Now. Unfortunately, a lot of plants, including green vegetables, put out bitterness as a warning that they may be poisonous. Therefore, without training, your child may just follow his survival mechanism.
So why does your friend’s child eat up any vegetables while yours will hold a stand-off? Geneticist, Dennis Drayna, has identified one gene that controls whether a person likes green vegetables or absolutely hates them. By testing how strongly people hate P.T.C., a compoundsimilar to the one found in cauliflower and broccoli, he discovered the gene that makes some people hate the taste of P.T.C. but some could not taste it at all.
Geneticist, Danielle Reed and bio-psychologist, Julie Menella of Monell Chemical Senses Center tested a group of middle school students and concluded that each child gets a set of chromosomes, one half from you and the other from your spouse. Within them hides a gene that determines if he is a “taster” or a “non-taster” to the substance that many children hate in vegetables such as broccoli. This gene is responsible for shaping your child’s taste receptors on their taste buds, hence how they sense the taste of the bitter substance.
During the experiment, genetic samples of the school children were collected. When the children were given samples of P.T.C. Three types of children were identified from Reed’s experiment. If the child gets “non-taster” gene sequences from both parents, he is a “non-taster” and cannot sense the bitterness of P.T.C. On the other hand, if he gets both “taster” gene sequences from the parents, he is destined to be a sensitive “taster”. He tasted strongly towards P.T.C. and will most likely struggle with you about green veggies. Finally, if he gets one “taster” and one “non- taster” gene from the parents, he is genetically a “medium bitter-taster”, as noted by Reed. Through learning, these “medium bitter-tasters” can get used to the bitter taste. That’s where fostering good perceptions and flavors can play a role. Some of this can be done with good recipes and flavor combinations.
Now that you have the science behind you, you have a big job training your child to eat properly going forward. Next time when you are pulling your hair out and trying to teach your child to eat broccoli, you should look at yourself at the mirror and ask, “Was I the one who gave the picky gene to my child?”
One more thing – if you are still frustrated with getting your child to eat vegetables, you must read this book,
- Nova Science Now: The Science of Picky Eaters (7/21/2009). Retrieved April 9, 2012 from http:/ /www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/science-picky-eaters.html
- KQED Quest: The Science of Taste (3/16/2010). Retrieved April 9, 2012 from http:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HxAB54wlig