The Sociology of Picky Eating

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A couple of months ago I wrote about two major influences on individual food preferences: genetics and early exposure to flavors in the womb and through breast milk. I recently spoke to Marci Pelchat, a researcher with the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, about another piece of the puzzle: the role sociology and culture play in determining how we eat throughout the life cycle.

The strongest predictor of how a person will eat is where he grows up, Pelchat says. A person raised in Mumbai is far likelier than one in Minneapolis to enjoy spicy foods—unless, of course, he or she grows up in a family of Minnesotan curry-eaters or Indian lutefisk-lovers. "Familiarity is a huge factor," she explains.

For picky eaters it can take as many as 30 exposures to a new food for it to be accepted, although Pelchat cautions against parents forcing their children to eat something, a strategy that can easily backfire. Food-neophobic adults sometimes trace their reluctance to traumatic childhood food experiences. For instance, one friend of mine attributed her intense dislike of fish to the time her mother tricked her into eating a tuna salad sandwich by saying it was chicken salad.

A better way to handle a child that won't eat something is to say, "good, more for me," and then eat it yourself, Pelchat says. Obviously, this means you have to be willing to eat what you serve your children; parents who "model" adventurous eating are more likely to have food-fearless children. On a recent visit with my two-year-old nephew, I marveled as he gobbled up half the plate of fried calamari rings and tentacles we had ordered—not exactly the usual chicken fingers and pizza on most children's menus.

Although people often become more open to novel flavors as they grow into adulthood, the most food-neophobic kids tend to stay picky in relation to their peers throughout their lives, Pelchat says. But social factors, such as peer acceptance, can also strongly influence how people eat. She recalled that when her son was a child she put a cut-up kiwi in his lunch box one day and one of his classmates said, "oh, you got a kiwi! You're lucky." After that, obviously, he was a lot more eager to eat kiwi than if his friends had expressed revulsion at the slimy green fruit in his lunch.

The growing appetite of Americans for once-exotic produce, however, puts a wrinkle in Pelchat's studies on how people react to unfamiliar foods. "I'm very annoyed that mangoes have become popular," she says. "We're always on the lookout for something novel that also tastes good."

As people become adults, living away from their families and widening their social experiences, their willingness to try new foods also tends to expand. "People go on dates, and they don't want to look like a baby," she says.

Adventurous eating doesn't necessarily wane after middle-age, either, although changes in the senses can affect food preferences. Beginning as early as the 40s a person's sense of smell, in particular, starts to decline. Sometimes this leads to a preference for sweeter foods, because the sensitivity to sweet tastes lingers longer than to others. Well-meaning dietitians for retirement homes often take the salt out of food, Pelchat says, even though only those with certain medical conditions need a low-salt diet. "When you take the salt out of food, you make it really bland," she says. "Salt is also a better bitter-blocker than sugar." This blandness, combined with already muted senses, can take a lot of the pleasure out of food for elderly people.

Perhaps, after tackling the school lunch, Jamie Oliver should take on the retirement homes?

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