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How children experience taste varies according to the foods and basic flavors in question.

Children prefer sweet and fatty foods

How intensely children experience taste does not appear to influence what food they like. Children like sweet and fatty foods best, while bitter or umami foods are liked the least.

These are among the findings in a doctoral thesis by Edulia PhD candidate, Ervina. She has investigated the relationship between taste sensitivity and food preferences in children aged 9-12.

At this age, children often start to make more independent food choices and sometimes buy their own food or snacks. They are also more influenced by friends and classmates, while parents have less influence.

Ervina prepares samples for tests in a school class.

People experience taste differently

There are five basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Ervina found that how children experience taste varies based on which foods and basic tastes are involved.

“Some children are very sensitive to bitter and sour tastes but do not experience sweetness as particularly intense. Other children, experience all five of the basic tastes intensely. Yet others experience the opposite; they are not particularly sensitive to any of the basic tastes. The experiences of taste intensity appear to be different for various food and drinks,” explains Ervina.

First, she mapped how intensely the children in the study experienced each basic taste. The children then tasted four variants of grapefruit juice with different degrees of sweetness and four variants of vegetable bouillon with different amounts of salt added. While the tests involving the vegetable bouillon variants produced no clear differences, the children responded very differently to the grapefruit juice.

“None of the children particularly liked grapefruit juice, although there were still differences. The children who were extra sensitive to all of the basic tastes thought that all of the grapefruit variants tasted okay. On the other hand, those who were not sensitive to any of the basic tastes thought the sweetest variant was okay, although the less sweet the less tasty they found it. Those least satisfied with the grapefruit juice were children who were sensitive to bitter and sour tastes but not to sweetness. However, it appears that the juice became a bit better with more sweetening,” Ervina says.

Who likes fatty foods best?

The children also tested four different variants of milk. These were semi-skimmed milk 0.5 per cent, semi-skimmed milk 1 per cent, combination mix 2 per cent and whole milk 3.5 per cent. It turned out that the children who thought it was difficult to differentiate between the fat intensity in the various milk variants – preferred whole milk over the other milk variants.

“This indicates that the ability to sense the taste of fat influences what children like and eat. Children who like fattier food have a low ‘fat sensitivity’,” says Ervina.

Other findings from the tests indicate that on average girls are more taste sensitive than boys and that the differences are greatest for sweet and bitter tastes.

Children became taste detectives

Ervina conducted numerous different tests to map their taste sensitivity and how the children reacted to different basic tastes and the taste of fat. In total, more than 250 children aged 9-12 took part in the tests.

“These tests took quite a long time because the children had to taste and judge many different variants of the various samples. I developed a digital taste detective game to engage and retain the children’s attention and concentration. It worked very well,” says Ervina.

Ervina developed the digital game 'Taste Detective' to engage and keep the kids attention during the tests.

In the game, the goal was to identify and sense the differences between both basic tastes and basic taste or fat concentration. The children tasted water solutions with five different levels of concentrated basic tastes. They drank different types of milk. They tasted grapefruit juice with four different levels of sweetness and vegetable bouillon with different quantities of salt. In total, Ervina and her colleagues served more than 8,000 taste samples in the tests.

“Ervina’s research sheds light on a little-studied age group. She has developed new knowledge about individual differences and taste sensitivity’s role in children’s food habits. She has also developed valuable age-appropriate research methods, both for in-person meetings with children and for digital meetings subject to pandemic restrictions,” says senior scientist Valérie Almli of Nofima. She has been Ervina’s main supervisor.

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