The British Association for the Advancement of Science: Babies able to develop taste for a healthy diet

THE NATION'S poor diet could be improved by encouraging infants to eat a healthy variety of food soon after weaning, scientists said yesterday, on the opening day of the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Southampton.

People learn to like healthy foods, such as green vegetables and fruit, when they are very young children. The younger they are, the easier it is for them to develop a taste for a balanced diet, researchers believe.

Anne Murcott, a senior lecturer in medical anthropology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that preliminary results from a six-year research programme, which began earlier this year, indicated that what children learn to like sticks with them in adult life.

'The idea is that if you start children off with a limited number of things to eat, they end up liking a limited number of things later on. If you introduce very young children, between 4 and 6 months, to a much wider range of food, they learn to like a much wider range of food.'

She said there was increasing concern that many people in Britain did not eat a healthy, balanced diet and risked developing long-term degenerative disorders such as heart disease and cancer.

'The more disadvantaged people are - including children - the more likely they are to have a bad diet,' she said.

The pounds 1.4m research programme, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, will also investigate what influences the likes and the dislikes of children. Researchers at the University of Wales in Bangor have found children can learn to like healthy food that they previously found distasteful.

Fergus Lowe, professor of pyschology at the university, said the study had already found that dietary preferences were not biologically determined or deep- seated. 'To our surprise we found we could change a child's aversion to a particular food almost overnight, and maintain that change.'

The researchers devised a video drama based on a group of 'goodies' called the Food Dudes, who want to save children by getting them to eat healthy food. The 'baddies' are Captain Junk and his Junk Junta.

They showed the video to a small group of six-year-olds who had shown a dislike to certain foods such as spinach, broccoli, peas and exotic fruits such as guava and mango.

Professor Lowe found the children could be brought round very quickly to liking something they had considered unpleasent.

'Almost all the children began eating all the food. Initially they say it tastes awful but as you introduce them to more variety, they begin to change. They began to mimic the expressions made in the video, or produce their own spontaneous expressions,' Professor Lowe said.

Health education has not been very effective in changing the diet of people who eat poorly, he said. 'Our working hypothesis is that diet is predominantly culturally determined. It's what happens in the home and among children's peers that matters.'

The six-year study will also involve a national survey into what Britons eat, how the media contributes to food scares like salmonella, and how the diet of a family can change when one member becomes vegetarian, goes on a slimming course or has a diet prescribed by a doctor.

Researchers will also study how changes in diet among different ethnic groups living in the same city can affect health, diet and stress, and how Londoners are influenced by ideas of healthy eating.