Early development of eating in children

Interviewer: Lucy Vernall (Interviewer, Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Dr Jackie Blissett
Recorded: 17/12/2012
Broadcast: 24/01/2012

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Lucy: I’m here today with Dr Jackie Blissett in the School of Psychology. Jackie, it’s been a couple of years since we’ve spoken to you but you’ve been busy doing a horizon.  Tell us a bit about that. 

Jackie: Yes, it’s very exciting for us.  Horizon came along to film some demonstrations in our laboratory of children’s willingness to taste new foods. 

Lucy: So the programme is all about taste.

Jackie:  That’s right, so the development of our sensation of taste and our taste experiences and how that dictates our acceptance of foods later and how those things can be modified. 

Lucy: So what’s the earliest in our development as children that we can have experiences that influence how we taste as we get older?

Jackie: Well people might be surprised to know that actually, our experience of taste begins extremely early and in fact it begins in the womb. So for example a pregnant mother eats a very garlicky dinner, actually her foetus also experiences that garlicky taste within the amniotic fluid.  So there are a variety of flavours that do pass through into the uterine environment and actually have been shown to affect babies’ acceptance of those flavours after they’ve been born.  Exposure is the way that we learn to like things. The evidence seems to suggest that that exposure can start in the womb. 

Lucy: Are there any individual differences that we’re just born with?

Jackie: There certainly are and these are really interesting actually. So there are some genetic differences in our ability to taste specific tastes, particularly bitter tastes. These are often quite obvious when you look at individual children and their willingness to try, for example, green vegetables. So there will be some children for whom, you know, green vegetables might not be their favourite things but they will accept them and others who, for example, behave like you’re trying to kill them if you are - 

Lucy: This is the perennial sprout debate!

Jackie: That’s right. 

Lucy: At Christmas. 

Jackie: Yeah, exactly.  So if you have to eat your sprouts to get your Christmas pudding, there will be plenty of children who will find that extremely unpleasant and unpalatable, and those children are what we call ‘super-tasters’ and they have a genetic predisposition to taste the bitter chemicals that are present, particularly in green vegetables and will therefore of course find it much less easy to accept those kinds of vegetables into their daily diets.   It’s certainly fair to say that your environment and your experience with foods are probably your primary predictor of whether or not you’re going to accept them, so exposure is the first powerful determinant of whether or not you’re going to accept a food. If you’ve never had it before, you’re less likely to eat it yourself.  If you’ve had it repeatedly from when you were a baby, it’s a food frequently consumed by your family, the likelihood is you’re going to accept it, even if you have these genetic predispositions to dislike, for example, certain tastes. 

Lucy: How can a parent encourage a child to have a go at something new?

Jackie: The best way is a combination of exposure, so frequent presentations in a very pleasant and relaxed environment, combined with occasional prompting for the child to try the food. There will be some children for whom prompting won’t be necessary at all, and if you just have these foods around in your house, if you put the sprouts on the plate on a regular basis, the child will at some point pick the sprout up and eat it. There will be other children for whom exposure just isn’t going to be enough and for those children, some of our research suggests that one thing that might be quite useful is the use of prompts and this might include, for example, encouraging the child to hold the food or holding the food up in front of the child’s face, not in a pressuring way but just promoting their sensory exposure to that food and engaging with that food. 

Lucy: What kind of age group are we talking about here?

Jackie:  Generally the pre-school years but I think that this could be reasonably effective up to the sort of middle childhood years. It might be an odd thing to be doing with your teenagers and actually the teenagers are perfectly capable of really making their own decisions about whether or not they want to try new foods and their motivations for changing their diets will be very different. 

Lucy: So you keep putting the sprouts on the plate and then, if they can see that people around them are also enjoying their sprouts, and then if they don’t touch their sprouts what do you do then?

Jackie:  Well the first thing you don’t do is you never pressure them to eat the sprouts. There’s plenty of research evidence now that suggests that pressuring a child to consume a food, or certainly making them consume a whole portion of that food, clearing the plate or having to eat the food in order to get access to pudding for example is a very bad idea. 

Lucy: So not to say ‘you must eat your sprouts or there’s no trifle for you’. 

Jackie:  Absolutely.  It probably is about the worst thing you can do, both for preference for sprouts and for increasing preference for trifle.  Indeed.  You know, if I’ve got to eat them to get a reward, they must be awful. So you mustn’t use those kind of pressuring strategies and you mustn’t use other foods as a reward. However, what you can do is, for example offer very small non-food rewards for trying pieces and again, this is not a short term fix, this is something you might do over a period of weeks and months. You might say ‘OK, if you just eat a little bite of that sprout you can get a sticker’ or a little bite of that sprout and you can have a point on a chart that leads up to a bigger reward of some kind. You wouldn’t use a big reward. You can’t say ‘if you eat a bite of your sprout I’ll take you to the cinema’ because it's not a sustainable programme. 

Lucy: It sounds like a good deal!

Jackie: Yeah, exactly, and children will soon get wise to this. And then again it’s taste exposure over a period of time will do the rest for you, if you can get over that initial reticence to try.

Lucy: It’s actually quite a relaxed approach because for a lot of parents, meal times might be a kind of a battlefield and this is saying you don’t need to do any of that, just kind of chill a bit and have the foods around, don’t make a big deal out of it. 

Jackie:  That’s absolutely the message.  The problem with having a lot of pressure and anxiety around meals is that obviously the child feels that pressure and anxiety. What’s the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling very stressed and anxious is try a new food that you don’t like. It’s not a pleasant environment. You probably also know, the times when you’re willing to try a new food, you know, you might be sitting with friends in a restaurant, somebody’s having something that you’ve never had before, it’s a pleasant experience, you’re not being pressured to try it, nobody’s saying ‘you’ve got to try those mussels because otherwise you won’t get your pudding’, but you might be encouraged to try it because other people around you are eating it and exactly the same applies to children. 

Lucy: As parents though it’s so hard to know what to do and we kind of go back to our own childhood and how we were kind of encouraged or forced/prompted to eat foods. How can we train parents to use this kind of more relaxed approach?

Jackie: People are thinking about their own childhoods often when they’re thinking about the strategies they’re going to use to help their children to consume foods. One thing we’re trying is whether or not we can teach parents how to use these strategies, like for example how to physically prompt your child to consume a new food without pressuring them to eat it, by getting them to watch a video demonstration of the kinds of strategies they might be able to use because we find it’s a lot easier for people to watch a video rather than listening to me trying to explain how you physically prompt but not pressure your child to eat.  So far with 90 different parents and their children who have been into the laboratory and have had a lunch with us that contained a novel food, we’ve got several different groups that we’re trying a combination of the video and a couple of other strategies, to evaluate whether or not we can actually teach this rather than it just being something that parents spontaneously do. 

Lucy: But of course, once we’re grown up, we have to take responsibility for our own behaviour and it’s no longer up to our parents to feed us.  Can we make a change off our own accord?

Jackie: There’s no point at which our eating behaviours are completely fixed. We can make changes at any point really throughout the life span and indeed our tastes change as we age anyway, partly as a result of the exposure to different foods that we have through our life span, but also as a result of changes in our ability to taste foods as we grow older. We have much, much stronger taste experiences through childhood, and as we age, your taste sensations will be quite different. But if you want to change your diet really at any time, you can do that. 

Lucy: And something else you’ve been involved with since we last spoke with you is an iPhone app.

Jackie: That’s right, yes. So we’ve been working on an app to help people deal with emotional eating behaviour. It’s called the Comfort Eater Beater. It’s a free app so you can download it through iTunes. There are many occasions in our lives where we are often eating when we don’t really need to and often people are experiencing, for example, negative mood states like boredom or sadness, depression, anxiety, and turning to food to deal with those emotions rather than by dealing with them in more appropriate ways. This isn’t an app to deal with serious eating problems; it’s an app to help people who are just trying to make small changes to their eating behaviour for the better.  So our app is a simple way to help people think about why they are eating what they’re eating and to think about alternative ways of dealing with negative moods other than by consuming these sweet and fatty foods that they don’t really need.   Try it out, give it a go, see if it helps. 

Lucy: That’s some good advice for happy January and hopefully to cheer up all parents who are having problems with their kids. Dr Jackie Blissett, thanks very much. 

Jackie:  Thank you. 

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: www.ideaslabuk.com. On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Lucy Vernall and the producer was Sam Walter.