Gustation. It’s a fun word right? It is the scientific term for “taste”. We know that there are 5 basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and unami (savory). We actually have receptors in our oral cavity (mouth) and gut to sense taste - they help tell us if we should allow a substance into our body. The human body is pretty amazing and we were born with abilities to keep ourselves safe. For example, we prefer sweet over bitter because well - breast milk is sweet and poison is bitter. See - our taste buds have helped us grow and thrive for centuries.
Flavor is different - it’s actually an integration of taste, smell and texture. Millions of combinations of these three inputs allow us to experience a wide array of flavors. In fact, over 70% of what we experience during dining comes from smell! There are some common flavors among various cultures. When you think of Indian food for example - you may think of bold and spicy. When you think of French food perhaps you smell the sweetness of freshly baked croissants. When you think about Chinese food - cheese doesn't often come to mind. Some tastes are more common in certain regions of the world than others.
These preferences are influenced by a variety of factors like genetics, culture, repeated exposures and modeled behavior. Our dietary experiences as infants are extremely important in shaping our food preferences. In fact, this starts when a baby is in utero - the flavor molecules make it from mom’s diet into the amniotic fluid and after the baby is born, into the breast milk. My first hand experience? Asian Pears. I craved and ate these religiously during both pregnancies and my children can confidently say their favorite fruit is … yup, asian pears.
In fact, babies form taste patterns by 9 months but they also change over time. During early childhood, infants are more likely to accept new foods, so promoting a varied diet and curiosity towards foods decreases the likelihood of picky eating in toddlerhood. Developing this love of adventurous eating should start from the initial stages of the food journey as parents introduce solids. After the age of 3–4 years, dietary patterns/food habits remain more stable, so starting early is crucial!
There are plenty of examples of food that is acceptable to one culture but completely novel to another culture. Corn fungus (Mexico), developing bird embryos (Philippines), a giant rat (Togo), and jellied eels (UK) are all examples that were shown in National Geographic when discussing foods across the world. Children raised in China experience many more textures than children raised in the USA. In Ethiopia beans are roasted and passed around to smell the aroma as part of the dining experience. So, the form of preferences for certain tastes, textures and smell stem from the culture we are raised in - our preferences start in our home.
So, how can you raise an adventurous eater who experiences flavors across the world?
- Introducing a variety of colors, flavors and textures as babies start their food journey can help combat picky-eating during the toddler and school years.
- Offer and offer again. Repeated exposures are needed - at least 8-10 times (often up to 15) - over time before babies (and children) get used to a new flavor. However, repeated offering doesn’t mean repeated forcing. Tip: You can use ingredients in the meals in another setting (using veggies to create art and jewelry) to help familiarize children in a low-stress way beyond the dining table.
- Expand on certain flavors your child does enjoy. For example, if your child enjoys a particular taste - you can incorporate that into a new recipe from a different region of the world to slowly introduce a new texture. Or if they like a specific texture, you can choose different tastes from a recipe stemming from a different culture.
- Make the dining experience holistic. When children are involved in meal preparation, they are more likely to eat the meal to which they contributed. Talk about the region of the world the recipes are from, listen to music from that area, and learn about traditions and customs that families from that country may participate in. All of this breeds a broader view of the world and each other through food! (We do this with our meals and it makes dining such a fun and interactive experience for the entire family)
So while you may not be introducing squid at your next family dinner, you can slowly but surely start your adventure across the world through mealtime. Cheers to happy healthy eating friends!