Eating - it's complicated! Eat what you want? Watch what you eat? Processed or unprocessed? Organic or conventional? The decisions can be overwhelming. And that's just for deciding for yourself. For parents, there is the added responsibility for making food choices for your little (and progressively bigger) ones. For my class this semester, Experiencing Food Through the Senses, we read a fascinating book entitled Neurogastronomy by Gordon Shepherd. For one of my writing assignments, I wrote a piece taking one of the ideas presented in the book and questioning how it might affect children's flavor preferences. Below is the piece I wrote for the assignment. I'd love to hear your thoughts and questions. I highly recommend this book - really fascinating to think about how you perceive flavor.
Chapter 27 of Gordon Shepherd’s book Neurogastromony discuss why flavor matters and what implication it has for affecting nutrition and food policy. Shepherd discusses the “six ages of flavor”. From infancy through adolescence the brain flavor system is a developing work in progress (Shepherd, 2012). As a parent, I wonder how I influence my son’s brain flavor system and ultimately his flavor experience. How will his hard-wired preferences combined with my actions impact him as he grows up and develops?
How do the mother’s preferences play a role in these developing flavor images? In the initial stage, Flavor in the Womb, Shepherd discusses existing research on the topic. The infant shows a preference for flavors of mother’s food eaten during pregnancy, describing that “learning of these preferences in utero and their emotional expression are therefore incorporated into this hard-wired system” (2012). Moving through in infancy, the flavor preferences of the mother continue to affect flavor preference in the infant. Through diet, breastfeeding mothers transfer flavor influences through milk.
At the next age stage, introducing solid foods, the infant’s brain flavor system continues developing. There are varying schools of thought on starting babies on solid foods. I cannot reflect on how other cultures address this, just what I have researched in the United States as a new parent. The amount of information is overwhelming. Sources of information range from family and friends, the American Pediatric Association, your baby’s pediatrician, and books too numerous to count authored by doctors, moms, and nutrition experts. There is the “traditional” method of introducing fruit and vegetable purees and mashes starting at six months. There is also a newer method called baby-lead weaning, where purees are skipped all together and soft solid foods are introduced from the beginning. Some sources suggest solids at four months while others advocate other to wait until at least six months. There are varying opinions on what foods to introduce and what to avoid. If, as discussed in the chapter, there is a short learning period in which infants “can be trained to different flavors” of up to six months, how does the traditional recommendation to start solids at six months impact future flavor images, perceptions, and preferences?
In addition to the timing for introducing foods, how do the types of foods offered in these different approaches impact the development of flavor images? Does a baby who starts with whole squash pieces develop a different flavor image than the baby who starts with squash puree? Does the difference in texture impact the resulting flavor image? Within these various methods there is the variable of how the food is prepared or packaged. Similar to adult foods, many baby foods are packed in convenience packaging. They are single-serve, shelf-stable, portable containers. From personal experience, I have found that the flavor from a homemade mashed carrot and prepackaged 100% carrot puree are very different. The prepackaged carrot puree was much more intense. If an infant is given only these prepared foods, how will this influence their flavor preferences later in childhood and adulthood?
Does this intensity of flavor in prepared baby foods impact infant’s flavor preferences moving into childhood? Shepherd discusses research showing that children do prefer intense flavors. Shepherd states, “this makes them especially vulnerable to the main culprits we have identified as leading to overeating – sweet foods, salt, and fat – through sensations that overwhelm the brain’s control systems” (2012). He suggests that more research needed to understand why children’s brain flavor system is so vulnerable. It is interesting to think of this preference for intense flavor in childhood, in the context of plasticity of the brain with relation to food preferences. Once the preferences are developed, it is hard to reverse them. If children become sensitized to a high sugar diet, this has implications for their health as they grow up into adulthood. Sweet is the most marketed flavor toward children, with marketers using bright colors, characters, games to attract children. In addition to marketing, there are cultural meanings associated with sweets – especially with holiday foods. In daily life, should sweets be treated as a special reward, giving them special status? Or should they be incorporated in moderation as part of the regular routine. How does this impact your child’s desire for the food – and the preference and association they develop with it?
There are many unanswered questions and unknowns. As the field of neurogastromony advances and expands the understanding of the brain flavor system, it will be important to use the findings to impact policy and thinking around children’s nutrition and eating habits. Understanding the underlying systems will help to design health and nutrition guidelines and systems to support the development of healthy children.
Shepherd, G. M. (2011). Neurogastronomy: how the brain creates flavor and why it matters. Columbia University Press.