| A chunk of Junk
London, March 24: A study has shown why it is so hard to persuade children to shift their diet from chips and other junk foods to green and healthy fare.
Infants weaned on rusks, baby food, processed foods and milk are more likely to go on to prefer 'beige carbohydrate' such as crisps, white bread and chips, according to psychologists. Dr Gillian Harris, a clinical psychologist at Birmingham University, said children built up a 'visual prototype' of favoured foods. But babies exposed to fruit and vegetables and a range of other non-beige foods, will show a greater preference for those foods later on.
Children tend to reject foods that do not match the prototype without even tasting them probably because of an ancient survival mechanism. This sets the pattern for future preferences. 'If you eat brussels sprouts at the age of two, you are likely to be eating them when you are 40,' she said.
Although there is variation among children in terms of how driven they are by prototypes, Dr Harris believes that this could explain why so many children learn to reject green foods like vegetables.
Dr Harris made the discovery while investigating the effect of colour, shape, size and texture of food on the preferences of 40 infants over a period of two years.
The prototype model meshes with evolutionary theory, which suggests that our tastes and preferences were shaped for survival reasons. We are born with a love of sweet tastes, associated with ripe fruit and breast milk, and a dislike of bitter tastes, linked with alkaloid toxins in plants.
We do learn to change these tastes depending on what our parents give us to eat. However, at the age of around 18 months, when a Stone Age toddler would have been able to wander around and select his own food for the first time, the visual prototype mechanism is turned on.
'There is uncertainty and a lack of education about how children should be fed and this can lead to children's preferences being set at a very early age. I would recommend that parents give their children the same food that they are eating provided it is a balanced diet containing fruit and vegetables, to introduce them to new colours, textures and shapes,' she said.