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Young children know what they like to eat -- but it could be full of fat, salt and sugar

January 25, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times

Preschoolers may be good at indicating what foods they like over others, a study finds, and those foods could be loaded with fat, salt and sugar. They're also fairly savvy at recognizing fast food and beverage brands, indicating that food preferences and product awareness may happen early in life.

Researchers from the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin designed two studies looking at food preferences. In the first, mothers of 31 male and 36 female preschoolers completed a survey of their children's preferences for foods high in sugar, fat and salt. Their children were shown cards featuring 11 natural foods (such as apples and green beans) and 11 flavor-added foods (such as cheese puffs, jelly beans and ketchup) and asked to rate them on a five-point scale of facial expressions: a big frown indicated a great dislike to something and a big smile indicated they really liked the taste. None of the pictures of food showed any packaging.

When parents indicated that their children liked foods high in fat, salt and sugar, their children tended to choose those foods as well. The children on average showed a higher preference for the taste of flavor-added foods compared with natural foods.

In the study, published online in the journal Appetite, the authors noted that, although this doesn't prove that all children prefer flavor-added foods, "this result begs the question of why some children show a strong liking for the taste of flavor-added foods while others do not."

In the second study, 108 children (even split between boys and girls) were shown a random assortment of cards; some related to popular fast-food chains, some to large cola companies and some to products that were extraneous. All of the children could put at least some of the product cards with the correct company.

While the findings are not conclusive, the authors wrote that it's reasonable to urge parents of young children to think about their own food preferences as well the tastes of their children, and to consider how those preferences develop: "Some adjustments to reduce a strong sugar, fat, and salt preference may be easier to make than reduced calorie diets. For example, a simple and relatively effortless first step might be to keep salt shakers in the pantry, and condiments out of sight."

"Our findings present a public policy message," said study co-author T. Bettina Cornwell in a news release. "If we want to pursue intervention, we probably need to start earlier."

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