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In the USA, many children are known to have an overwhelming preference for "junk food"; cuisine that ranges from boring (chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, plain hot dogs) to outright disgusting (McDonalds, Chef Boyardee, most of the contents of the "snack" aisle) and often unhealthy. The image of children turning their noses up at healthier foods (vegetables, whole grain bread) is similarly well ingrained.

What I want to know is how much of this is cultural, and how much is biological? That is, if I'm creating a fictional world with a novel history and culture, but still following terrestrial biology, what rules should I be following with respect to how a child's culinary preferences would differ (if at all) from an adult's?

To be clear, I consider it entirely plausible for my child characters to have the same unwillingness to eat anything besides "junk" food, and of course this will vary by individual as well. What I want to know is how plausible it is for a child (say, one in at least grade school; you can ignore babies and toddlers) to enjoy, or at least be generally willing to eat, the same sorts of food as adults?

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this question but it might just fail the Book Rule. Nutrition is not one problem but an entire field of science. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 19, 2021 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ I read a study on this a couple of decades ago, I'll see if I can dig it up and breath some life into it's corpse. (Horrible analogue, sorry) $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2021 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ Children have different needs than adults, one of them being able to grow. That'd be my answer if my knowledge spanned further than "having a relative who worked with kids". Which it doesn't :p. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Jul 19, 2021 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ Couldn't specifically find what I was looking for, but there's a comprehensive collection of about 40 study results explained in layman's terms and in very brief (and big, very colorful) print for those with the time to compose an answer, all in one 45 page PDF. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2021 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ I agree that it is 2 questions in one query which should be separated into 2 different queries. I do not agree, however, that the second question (about non-human species) is inherently opinion-based. It would need specifying biological and cultural differences from animals of our world, but it would still be answerable if biology is similar. There should be a lot of information related to feeding pets, domesticated animals, and animals in zoos. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Jul 19, 2021 at 19:34

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I believe you need to investigate early childhood "food preferences". There are well documented articles about taste, texture and smell and the development of the growing bodies senses. I cannot answer on the difference between sentient canine and human societal norms.

To summarise some key points from one such food preference article:

Infants’ and children’s eating and activity behaviors are influenced by both intrinsic (genetics, age, gender) and environmental (family, peers, community, and society) factors.

Parents act by teaching children in different ways how, what, when, and how much to eat and by transmitting cultural and familial beliefs and practices surrounding food and eating. Parents’ influence is significant: it is reflected both by what is on the plate and the context in which it is offered.

Humans generally have inborn positive responses to sugar and salt, and negative responses to bitter taste....Children are also predisposed to prefer high-energy foods, to reject new foods, and to learn associations between food flavors and the post-ingestive consequences of eating.

Children usually prefer foods that are high in sugar and salt over those which are sour and bitter tasting, such as some vegetables.

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It mostly comes down to what they were fed as a toddler.

First basically all humans prefer junk food, if not specific junk foods, so this is why children prefer junk food if it is offered. For most of our evolutionary history your survival was largely determined by how many calories you could acquire, and junk food is high in calories. It is also known children have a stronger preference for sweet foods, again this makes sense, easier to digest calories would be even more useful for children, who have a higher calorie demand. there is a known lower tolerance for bitterness in food in children, which again makes sense, children being smaller will have a lower tolerance for toxins as well. there is an evolutionary underpinning to basic taste preferences, the basic tastes are each ways of detecting essential nutrients or common toxins. sweet=carbohydrates, Umami=protein, bitter= alkaloids, sour=acidic, salty is self explanatory.

But children can also change these basic preferences through exposure, frequently feed children bitter food and they will have a higher tolerance for bitter food as an adult.

Children and adults also have a strong preference for the foods they are given at a young age. both in taste and texture. Roughly, the sooner a child is exposed to a food the more accepting of it they are. this also could be described as them having an aversion to food they were not given.

This does make some evolutionary sense, instead of learning which foods are safe from scratch, work off the assumption that whatever you are given is safe and everything else is questionable. This is not set in stone however, taste can be changed through exposure but you need more and more exposure the later it is introduced. So if your child is only fed junk food it is completely expected that you will have a hard time getting them to try anything else. If on the other hand you want them eating the same food as adults, when you start giving them solid food, feed them the same food as adults.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5438435/

https://academic.oup.com/chemse/article/30/suppl_1/i242/270379?login=true

But to be clear this is for humans, for other animals it can be drastically different, cats for instance cannot taste "sweet" since they are hyper carnivores sweet has little benefit since they will not be able to digest most sweet foods. If they are omnivores with child rearing you can expect something similar to humans, but if not then you will have to ask about your specific scenario.

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    $\begingroup$ "basically all humans prefer junk food"... dogs and cats, too, e.g. dogs that will gorge on chocolate or antifreeze (worse than junk food; actually poisonous!) because they're sweet. Cats that can become "addicted" to tuna. If you know anything about the pet food industry, you know there are certain compounds (e.g. brewer's yeast) that can make poor quality food "attractive", almost exactly as is done with human junk food. BTW, I've heard cats can digest carbohydrates just fine... $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jul 20, 2021 at 13:13
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Diet is cultural. Taste sensitivity is inborn.

It makes intuitive sense that evolutionarily, growing children should hold out for the sweetest foods as the most calorically rich. Children do not detect sweet flavors as well as teens and young adults and so it takes more sweetness for them. Growing children are more sensitive to toxins and so perceive bitter more acutely which accounts for why nonfruit vegetable foods are often rejected.

Ontogeny of taste preferences: basic biology and implications for health

... 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.

I clearly remember the bitterness of carrots as a small child and then was surprised when I tried them again in college and they were good. I had changed.

One might predict a similar change in the tastebuds of pregnant women to avoid foods which in our evolutionary history might have had toxins damaging to a fetus. Also a prediction (of mine) is that young children and pregnant women would have a propensity for fatty foods - high in calories and rarely toxic. Approaching from first principles it seems very likely that the sensory apparatus in the mouth can distinguish fat calories and this is an area of research.

There are biological reasons for taste preferences and it is fascinating reading - a combination of evolutionary adaptations over time, the wild diversity of taste and smell receptors even between individual humans, and the modification (intentionally or not) of taste perceptions through drugs and chemicals.


Diet, though, is cultural. With the big exception of ethanol, our menu does not now contain a lot of the potentially toxic vegetable calorie sources that might have caused trouble for our omnivorous ancestors.

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This presentation shared by A Rogue Ant suggests some insights. In particular:

  • Children exposed at a young age (starting at about six months seems to be the critical period) to a wide variety of food are more likely to be receptive to a wider variety of foods when they are older.
  • Culinary "growth" seems to start around seven years of age.

From this, we can surmise that, while there are biological aspects at work, they can be shaped to a significant degree by early experiences. Put differently, it would seem that a child's experiences from about six to nine months may largely dictate the child's preferences for years. Thus, a child given "adult" food very early and consistently stands a very good chance of accepting such food throughout childhood and beyond, while a child given only "mild" food in the first year is likely to develop "fussiness" which may last until adolescence or even persist for life.

Strictly speaking, then, "culture" plays a significant role, but to be more precise, it is a child's experiences (i.e. exposure to various foods) in this "critical formative period" that is most relevant. This has, of course, a significant cultural aspect, but it would be well to keep in mind that after this period, a cultural / environmental change, at least from "simple" foods to "complex" foods, would seem unlikely to be "effective".

What about non-humans? Well, it seems plausible they would be in the same boat, at least inasmuch as appropriate cultural conditions can "circumvent" the stereotypical "picky child eater". I'm not aware of any instances of young animals having significantly different "tastes" that develop and expand as they grow older (although documentation to the contrary would be welcomed!), and on some reflection, this seems to make sense. In the wild, young animals don't have the luxury of being fussy eaters, as the only food available is whatever mom and dad are eating. Thus, they would naturally be exposed to "adult" food at an early age, and we might presume the same principles at work in humans are at work for other animals as well.

However... an interesting alternative take is also available. Domestic cats have a reputation for being fussy eaters. Being raised by humans, they are more likely to be exposed to only a limited diet during the relevant formative period. Combined with the idea that domesticated animals are in some ways developmentally stunted, never "fully" maturing to adults, this may well be a case of the same principles manifesting, with a limited diet early on leading to less tolerance later. Thus, it seems quite plausible that non-humans might demonstrate a similar spectrum of fussiness or lack thereof based on experience during the critical formative period.

So... TL;DR, both humans and non-humans might believably tolerate or not tolerate "adult" food as children.

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  • $\begingroup$ Cats also have a very different sense of taste than humans. cats are also hypercarnivores and can't digest the vast majority of human foods. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 20, 2021 at 6:27
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Perhaps you could, to do it a not-so-sensible way, drown the healthy food in chocolate and then coat it with sprinkles. Or you could maybe put a pickle or a cucumber on a stick, and then coat it with melted dark chocolate. As a website says: Dark chocolate is a rich source of antioxidants and minerals, and it generally contains less sugar than milk chocolate. Some research suggests that dark chocolate may help lower the risk of heart disease, reduce inflammation and insulin resistance, and improve brain function.

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  • $\begingroup$ Somewhat hard to see how it adresses the question and how it provides answer to it $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 20, 2021 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ I suppose so. Sorry about that. $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2021 at 19:01
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Early in a child's life, they are accustomed to eating certain foods, such as leafy greens (e.g. spinach) or high-calorie junk food (e.g. donuts). This period of time "secures" the diet of children as they grow up. For example, if a child was fed nothing but broccoli and celery throughout their childhood, then they would undoubtedly throughout adulthood as well. But if they were fed food like ice cream and cookies throughout their childhood on a regular basis, they would also consume it at high intervals at adulthood as well. Some other factors that contribute to a child's diet is what their parents eat. If their parents ate nothing but bland health food, they would follow their example. If their parents ate nothing but fast food every day, they would also do the same. But we must remember that they are children. Children often lean towards foods that are sweet and pleasing to the taste buds. To ensure that they eat healthy throughout their lives, they should be in an environment where junk food is simply outlawed, so that they don't have any access to it.

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