U. OREGON (US) — Preschoolers know what they like—sugar, salt, and fat—and they quickly figure out which brands will deliver the goods.
In a study of preschoolers ages 3 to 5, involving two separate experiments, researchers confirm—what most parents already know—that salt, sugar, and fat are what kids most prefer. They also found that children could equate their taste preferences to brand-name fast-food and soda products. Details are reported in the journal Appetite.
In a world where salt, sugar, and fat have been repeatedly linked to obesity, waiting for children to begin school to learn how to make wise food choices is a poor decision, says T. Bettina Cornwell, a professor of marketing at the University of Oregon. Children even are turning to condiments to add these flavors—and with them calories—to be sure that the foods they eat match their taste preferences.
“Our findings present a public policy message,” Cornwell says. “If we want to pursue intervention, we probably need to start earlier.” Parents, she adds, need to seriously consider the types of foods they expose their young children to at home and in restaurants. “Repeated exposure builds taste preferences.”
In the first experiment, 67 children (31 boys, 36 girls) and their mothers were recruited from preschool classes in a large city. The mothers completed a 21-item survey to report on their taste preferences of their children. The children responded to their perceived tastiness of 11 natural and 11 flavor-added foods.
The photos of the foods were presented without labeling or packaging. Researchers found strong agreement in that both parental and children’s perceptions matched: Parents noted the desire for foods high in sugar, fat, and salt, while their children showed preference for flavor-added foods, which contained these ingredients.
Foods well within the preschoolers’ experience were presented in the experiment. Natural foods included apples, bananas, plain milk, fruit salad, water, green beans, and tomatoes (strawberries and watermelon were the top picks; flavor-added foods included such things as cheese puffs, corn chips, watermelon hard candy, jellybeans, banana soft candy, ketchup, colas, and chocolate milk (strawberry ice cream and jellybeans scored the highest).
In the second experiment, researchers explored the association of preschoolers’ palate preferences to their emerging awareness of brands of fast foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. Participating were 108 children (54 boys, 54 girls) from five urban preschools.
Each child was shown 36 randomly sorted cards—12 related to each of two popular fast-food chains, six to each of the two leading cola companies, and six depicting irrelevant products. All children were able to correctly place some of the product cards with the correct companies, indicating their differing levels of brand recognition. The findings show that children with higher preference for sugar, salt, and fat were very good at recognizing brands.
The researchers say the results suggests “that fast-food and soda brand knowledge is linked to the development of a preference for sugar, fat, and salt in food.” The relationships, they add, appear to reflect the children’s emotional experiences in a way that says the brand-named products deliver their developed taste preferences.
It may well be, Cornwall says, that when parents repeatedly serve certain foods, their children acquire a taste for them and soon recognized what brands deliver that taste. Earlier research has shown that children given red peppers on 10 different occasions will acquire a taste for red peppers and that logic extends to other foods. Children served French fries will, in turn, develop a preference for French fries.
Fighting childhood obesity, Cornwell says, should begin at home. First, families should focus on reducing the consumption of low-nutrient “junk” foods and replacing them with increased servings of healthy foods. Such an approach, the researchers noted in their conclusion, moves away from issues of weight and dieting—instead targeting the development of tastes preferences.
Anna McAlister, a consumer science researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was a coauthor on the study.
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