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Growing kids are hardwired to prefer sweet-tasting foods, study finds

Scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center found a correlation between a preference for sweet tastes and height in children

Children who raid the sweet cupboard may have an excuse for their behaviour – it’s ingrained in their biological make up.

Researchers have found that children’s tendency to opt for sweet-tasting foods is related to their growing bodies.

Scientists from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, found that in general more children than adults prefer sweeter tastes – and that those children who most enjoy sweet flavours are also more likely to prefer salty tastes too.    

“Our research shows that the liking of salty and sweet tastes reflects in part the biology of the child,” said lead study author Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at Monell.

She said that biology predisposes humans to like and consume calorie-rich sweet foods and sodium-rich salty foods, but this is especially evident in children, whose bodies are still developing.

But in today’s consumer culture these predilections present a health risk.

“Growing children’s heightened preferences for sweet and salty tastes makes them more vulnerable to the modern diet, which differs from the diet of our past, when salt and sugars were once rare and expensive commodities,” Ms Mennella added.

In the small study, which was published in the journal PLOS One, Mennella and her colleagues tested 108 children aged between five and 10, as well as their mothers, for sweet and salt taste preferences.

They were asked to rate a number of sugar waters and jellies containing different concentrations of sucrose, as well as soups and crackers containing varying levels of salt.

Analysis of the data collected showed not only that more children than adults liked the sweetest and saltiest flavours best, but that there was a correlation between children’s taste preferences and their growth and development.

The children who preferred sweet solutions over salty ones tended to be tall for their age, while those who exhibited a preference for salt tended to have a higher body fat percentage.

There was also some indication that there is a link between a preference for sweet tastes and spurts in bone growth, but a larger sample size would be required to confirm this.

In the United States, current intakes of sodium and added sugars among children are well in excess of recommendations. Guidelines from leading authorities, including the World Health Organization, recommend significantly cutting sugar and salt intake for children.

Commenting on the implications of the study, Ms Mennella said: “The present findings reveal that the struggle parents have in modifying their children’s diets to comply with recommendations appears to have a biological basis.

"[But] it also paves the way toward developing more insightful and informed strategies for promoting healthy eating that meet the particular needs of growing children,” she added.