Ontogeny of taste preferences: basic biology and implications for health

Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Mar;99(3):704S-11S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.067694. Epub 2014 Jan 22.


Health initiatives address childhood obesity in part by encouraging good nutrition early in life. This review highlights the science that shows that children naturally prefer higher levels of sweet and salty tastes and reject lower levels of bitter tastes than do adults. Thus, their basic biology does not predispose them to favor the recommended low-sugar, low-sodium, vegetable-rich diets and makes them especially vulnerable to our current food environment of foods high in salt and refined sugars. The good news is that sensory experiences, beginning early in life, can shape preferences. Mothers who consume diets rich in healthy foods can get children off to a good start because flavors are transmitted from the maternal diet to amniotic fluid and mother's milk, and breastfed infants are more accepting of these flavors. In contrast, infants fed formula learn to prefer its unique flavor profile and may have more difficulty initially accepting flavors not found in formula, such as those of fruit and vegetables. Regardless of early feeding mode, infants can learn through repeated exposure and dietary variety if caregivers focus on the child's willingness to consume a food and not just the facial expressions made during feeding. In addition, providing complementary foods low in salt and sugars may help protect the developing child from excess intake later in life. Early-life experiences with healthy tastes and flavors may go a long way toward promoting healthy eating, which could have a significant impact in addressing the many chronic illnesses associated with poor food choice.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Breast Feeding
  • Child Development*
  • Diet* / adverse effects
  • Evidence-Based Medicine*
  • Feeding Methods
  • Female
  • Fetal Development
  • Food Preferences*
  • Health Promotion*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Maternal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Parenting
  • Pregnancy
  • Taste Perception