Developmental Changes in Food Perception and Preference

Front Psychol. 2021 May 18:12:654200. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.654200. eCollection 2021.


Food choices are a key determinant of dietary intake, with brain regions, such as the mesolimbic and prefrontal cortex maturing at differential rates into adulthood. More needs to be understood about developmental changes in healthy and unhealthy food perceptions and preference. We investigated how food perceptions and preference vary as a function of age and how food attributes (taste and health) impact age-related changes. One hundred thirty-nine participants (8-23 years, 60 females) completed computerized tasks to rate high-calorie and low-calorie food cues for taste, health, and liking (preference), followed by 100 binary food choices based on each participant's ratings. Dietary self-control was considered successful when the healthier (vs. tastier) food was chosen. Self-control success ratio was the proportion of success trials over total number of choices. Beta-weights for health (β-health) and taste (β-taste) were calculated as each attribute's influence on food preference. Adiposity measurements included BMI z-score and waist-to-height ratio (WHtR). High-calorie foods were rated more tasty and less healthy with increasing age. Older participants liked high-calorie foods more (vs. younger participants), and β-taste was associated with age. Significant age-by-WHtR interactions were observed for health and taste ratings of high-calorie foods, β-taste, and marginally for preference of high-calorie foods. Stratifying by WHtR (high, low), we found age-related increases in taste and preference ratings of high-calorie foods in the high WHtR group alone. In contrast, age-related decreases in health ratings of high-calorie foods were significant in the low WHtR group alone. Age and β-taste were significantly associated in the high WHtR group and only marginally significant with low WHtR. Although participants rated low-calorie foods as less tasty and less healthy with increasing age, there was no association between age and preference for low-calorie foods. Participants made faster food choices with increasing age regardless of WHtR, with a significant age-by-WHtR interaction on reaction time (RT). There were no age-related effects in self-control success ratio and β-health. These results suggest that individual differences in age and central adiposity play an important role in preference for high-calorie foods, and a higher importance of food tastiness in food choice may contribute to greater preference for high-calorie foods with increasing age.

Keywords: adolescents; children; dietary self-control; eating behavior; food choice; pediatric obesity.