July 27, 2006

Tots with Sensitive Taste Buds Eat Fewer Veggies

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Preschoolers who are sensitive to bitter flavors may be especially likely to turn their noses up at vegetables, a new study shows.

In an experiment with 65 preschool children, researchers found that those whose taste buds were particularly attuned to detecting bitterness were less likely to eat their veggies. In some cases, they balked at eating not only bitter vegetables, like broccoli and olives, but also sweeter fare like carrots and red peppers.

The findings suggest that innately sensitive taste buds help explain why some children are so staunchly opposed to vegetables, the study authors report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In recent years, scientists have identified a gene, dubbed TAS2R38, that controls a receptor for bitter flavor. A study published last year found that children with certain variations of that gene are particularly sensitive tasters, able to detect a very small amount of a bitter-tasting compound in water.

When children in the current study were tested in the same way, 37 percent of them said the water tasted "yucky" or bad, while the rest couldn't taste anything and were considered "nontasters."

When the children were given free range to snack on bitter-tasting vegetables (broccoli, olives and cucumbers) and sweeter ones (carrots and red peppers), the sensitive kids ate significantly fewer bitter vegetables.

And while only 8 percent of nontaster children refused all of the vegetables, 32 percent of the sensitive tasters did so.

So what should parents make of all this? According to the researchers, parents of fussy eaters should recognize that their children may not be having the same taste experience that they are.

"Parents should try not to project their own food preferences onto their children," said study co-author Dr. Beverly J. Tepper, a professor of food science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

A nontaster parent who loves broccoli, for instance, may have a more bitter-sensitive child who simply doesn't enjoy the greens in the same way, she explained.

That doesn't mean, however, that bitter-sensitive tykes are destined to shun vegetables their whole lives -- a potential comfort to parents who regularly engage in mealtime struggles.

"We do change our food preferences as we grow and learn," Tepper said, noting that the "impact of genetics isn't set in stone."

Whether there's a more immediate fix to the bitter-sensitivity issue is unclear. A tasty sauce might make vegetables more palatable to a sensitive child, but dousing veggies with toppings may not be the most nutritionally sound choice, Tepper noted.

Serving vegetables cooked rather than raw might help, she said, since cooking takes some of the bite out.

SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, July 2006.