How does taste preference arise in children?

Whether a child likes something or not depends on the experiences he or she has with eating it. The pleasure a child experiences or the disgust it arouses is the result of a complicated process in which many factors may be involved. A factor that plays an even more important role in children than in adults is the preference that arises from the taste of what is eaten. This concerns the total experience that a child has: what it tastes, what it smells and what it feels when eating a certain food.


Tasting the taste of food is done with the taste buds located throughout the oral cavity and especially on the surface of the tongue. These are chemically stimulated by certain substances in the food. The taste buds convert these into electrical stimuli that are sent to the brain via nerves. There you experience the taste of the food. In this way the four well-known tastes of sweet, sour, salty or bitter can be distinguished. Furthermore, the taste buds can also detect the typical taste of substances found in foods such as meat, fish, vegetables, mushrooms and cheese. This taste is referred to as umami , the Japanese word for ‘pleasant savory taste’. Dutch words for this flavor include: ‘meaty’ and ‘savoury’.


Children are able to taste the taste of the food they eat from a very young age. Experiencing a specific taste leads to specific reactions in children. These reactions have a major influence on whether you accept or reject the food tasted. Children experience sweets as extremely pleasant, even when they are still very young. For example, experiments show that the facial muscles of newborn babies relax and that expressions of pain in crying babies decrease when they put sweetened water in their mouths. It is generally believed that this innate preference for sweet taste in a baby increases the chance that he or she will accept breast milk (which has a sweet taste). This increased preference for sweets decreases as children get older, but remains elevated through adolescence. It is not clear why this preference persists beyond breastfeeding. Some scientists suggest that the preference for sweets in older children contributes to the acceptance of sweet and energy-rich foods more easily during periods of strong growth.


Children react negatively to bitter tastes from a very young age, including mouth movements that indicate an attempt to spit out the food and negative facial expressions. It is assumed that this is a natural protective mechanism to prevent young children from eating plants with (bitter) toxins, for example. Children are much more sensitive than adults to low concentrations of the bitter substances found in some vegetables. Many parents will recognize the reactions to a slightly bitter taste when tasting spinach, endive or Brussels sprouts for the first time. This (over)sensitivity can lead to these vegetables being eaten less or not at all. This hypersensitivity diminishes during adolescence.


The ability of children to detect salt is not demonstrable in young babies. Only at the age of 4 to 5 months do they show a preference for water with salt over plain water. Salt is essential for the proper functioning of the human body. For example, salt plays a role in regulating blood pressure and fluid balance and is important for the proper functioning of the nervous system. This taste preference of young children is most likely related to the need to ensure sufficient salt supplementation through food to compensate for the loss through sweat, among other things. As with sweet flavors, children prefer stronger salty flavors than adults. This preference decreases during adolescence.


The least research has been done on sour flavors. Babies a few days old show the same negative reactions that occur with solutions with a bitter taste and consume less sugar water when an acid is added. Research into the development of this taste suggests that the aversion to sour tastes gradually decreases as children grow older. However, the work of Djin Gie Liem for the Monell Institute and the University of Wageningen shows a different picture of this change in acid preference. In collaboration with colleagues, he showed for the first time in 2003 and 2004 that a significant proportion of children between the ages of five and twelve actually have a strong preference for a strong sour taste. In his research into the ability of children aged 5 to 9 years to distinguish sour flavors in different intensities, he discovered that 33% preferred extremely sour gelatin puddings, while the mothers of those children found them very unappetizing. Also a year later in a study with Dutch children aged 7 to 12 years, 58% chose the most sour variants of the pudding. In another part of this study, the children had to choose between three candies: two with a known flavor and one with an unknown one, the mystery candy. More children with a preference for sour appeared to have a preference for an unknown sweet in this study (69%) than the other children (36%). Regarding this difference, Liem suggested that children who like acid more may need more of the challenge of trying something new or extreme. The food industry has responded to this preference of a large group of children much earlier by marketing various extremely sour sweets, such as Napoleons and sour mats .

Umami (savory)

The substance that produces the umami taste is MSG (Mono sodium glutamate) and is better known to some as the commonly used Vetsin from Chinese cuisine. If this substance is added in very small quantities, the palatability of many non-sweet dishes is increased. Research shows that newborn babies give much more positive reactions after putting broth in which this substance has been dissolved on the tongue compared to plain water or the pure MSG substance. Research with two-month-old children by employees of the Monell Institute confirms these findings. The results of these studies suggest that there is an innate preference for the umami taste. Because foods that have an umami taste are often high in protein, the idea has arisen that the innate preference for this taste contributes to the intake of sufficient nutrients necessary for the development and growth of children. Research has not yet been able to confirm this.

Other sensations in mouth and throat

In addition to tasting, the sensation of feeling the food in the oral cavity also plays an important role for children. On the one hand, in addition to the chemical stimulation of the taste receptors in their mouth, nasal cavity and pharynx, children may also experience other, more caustic stimulation. This concerns chemical stimuli that are experienced as coolness or freshness due to a strong peppermint flavor or unpleasant stimuli that are experienced due to the sharpness of, for example, chili peppers. On the other hand, it concerns, among other things, preference for the specific mechanical characteristics of the food. This includes the degree of creaminess, lightness, roughness, hardness, slipperiness, resilience, crispiness and dryness. Especially for children, it appears that mouthfeel plays an important role in the preference and acceptance of certain foods.

You smell the taste

Whether the taste of a food is liked depends on many more factors than just what is tasted with the tongue and experienced in the mouth. To a large extent (85%) we experience the taste of food through what we smell. The extent to which the smell of food determines the taste becomes clear in experiments in which smelling food is made impossible or in the case of a cold that hinders smelling: the food can no longer be tasted properly. The odorants that are released from the food in small particles cannot then enter the nasal cavity with the air flow and cannot be detected in the odor receptors present there. The contribution to the taste experience is greatest when these substances rise from the oral cavity at the back of the throat during chewing and swallowing and thus come into contact at the back of the nasal cavity with the receptors located in a small area at the top of the nasal cavity.
There is little research available on how the smell of food contributes to the development of a certain preference for food. It is known that very young children are already able to smell. Just as when experiencing taste, babies also give different reactions when smelling different odors. Research from the last century with newborn babies shows that they give positive reactions to odors that most adults find pleasant and negative reactions to odors that adults experience as disgusting. One of the pioneers in this field is Jacob Steiner. In his 1977 study, he studied the facial expressions of babies less than twelve hours old who were exposed to different odors. If a stick with the smell of rotten eggs was held under the nose, the corners of the mouth would pull down or the lips would purse. Steiner interpreted these reactions as signs of rejection and disgust. A banana scent gave a relaxed, satisfied expression accompanied by sucking movements of the mouth. He saw these facial expressions as signals of acceptance and liking. Later research analyzing videotapes of infants’ facial expressions, determining the degree of head turn toward an odor source, or measuring heart rate, respiratory rate, or electrical activity of facial muscles also confirms these findings. Babies’ responses to mother’s scent, amniotic fluid, and breast milk confirm that their behavior is influenced by odors from an early age. For example, newborn babies are able to find their mother’s nipple after just one hour. When a baby is placed on the mother’s stomach between her breasts, various preparatory feeding behaviors are seen, such as sucking and sucking movements of the mouth and tongue, and most babies are able to find a nipple without assistance. If one of the two breasts is washed and therefore loses its natural scent, in the same experiment the majority (75%) of babies appear to prefer the breast where the mother’s scent is still present. Because it is of vital importance for a young baby to be able to find its mother’s nipple, it is obvious that this ability to find its own mother’s nipple through smell is innate. After all, in nature, breast milk is the only source of the necessary nutrients.

Influencing children’s taste preferences?

  • Also offer children flavors other than those they naturally like.
  • Let them get used to these flavors with small bites and repeat this tasting over several days.
  • Please note that children prefer extremely sweet foods.
  • During the period when children are sensitive to this, take advantage of the fact that acidic foods usually contain few calories and can be healthier snacks (sour bomb, pickles).
  • Realize that children are hypersensitive to even small amounts of the bitter taste of vegetables: so try small snacks or process the vegetables in something that (partially) masks the bitter taste (e.g. in a casserole, stew or mix with apple sauce).

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