A new study suggests that we can train folks to prefer healthier foods by stripping extra sugars and salts out of baby foods. But the effort to get bitter-tasting, healthier foods into the nation's high chairs is working against some powerful biological forces. Humans evolved to seek out—with the least amount of effort—fatty, salty, and sugary foods. And the impulse kicks in before we even open our mouths.
In order to train kids to develop healthier tastes, we'd have to start the process pretty early—even before our first taste of mother's milk. As sensory researcher Julie Mennella has found, we begin to develop preferences for certain flavors in utero. So changing a kid's diet in school can present some real challenges, she told me. "It’s not an easy fix. Children prefer much more intense sweetness and saltiness, which is no surprise if you look at what children like to eat. If that’s the bad news, the good news comes from how you learn about food—the cultural learning that takes place early in life."
My colleague Nona Willis Aronowitz has one suggestion for early food education: Stop framing foods as "good" or "bad" and urge moderation instead. Every early feeding can provide an opportunity to teach good eating—breastfeeding, family dinners, and to a certain extent school lunches can all help instill healthier eating habits in kids, if not necessarily healthier tastes. And all of these things can have lifelong ripple effects on our health.
Still, when it comes down to decisions later in life, there's another powerful force at work: economics. As Adam Drewnowski, an obesity researcher, told Scientific American this week, "many people don't eat the foods they like, they eat the foods they can afford." And that problem extends beyond the price of food: Many hard-working families just don't have the time to eat together, much less serve up nutrition lessons with breakfast. So, how do we make the right stuff affordable? And how do we make the right eating habits easier to pass along?