Food preferences start to develop before you are born. At first food choices are influenced by what a mother eats during pregnancy. This determines the flavour of the amniotic fluid that the baby is exposed to, meaning our flavour senses tend to be very developed at birth.
We are inclined to naturally respond positively to sugar and salt and have a negative response to bitter tastes. As children, we also tend to prefer high energy foods. How these natural instincts are nurtured throughout life will have a large impact on food preferences. Both amniotic fluid and breast milk will reflect the mother's diet to a degree. During pregnancy, women can repeatedly consume less salty and more bitter foods to alter this natural food preference. Also, consuming a large variety of foods during pregnancy will ensure that your child is more accepting of foods as they were exposed to a variety of flavours in utero.
After birth, breastfeeding or bottle-feeding your baby will also play a big role in your child's food choices. The maternal diet will influence breast milk flavour and could in part explain why breastfed infants are less picky eaters and why they are more experimental in their food choices later in life. The feeding behaviour associated with breastfeeding is less controlling and based more on the baby’s hunger and satiety cues. This allows a baby to control their energy intake, whereas the same cannot be said when an infant is fed formula. Formula-fed infants miss out on an ever-changing nutrition and taste profile.
At around 6 months of age, complementary feeding begins. The way this is approached can also have a lasting impact on future food choices. During the period of complementary feeding, infants are exposed to new textures, and stronger flavours and smells. Exposure to a large variety of foods in your first year of life will make you more accepting of foods. Only allowing for this exposure during the second year of life will have less of an effect. Children between the ages of 2-5 years may experience food neophobia, which further emphasises the importance of introducing a variety of foods between 6 and 24 months of age. Repeated food exposure helps to ensure infant food acceptance. Studies showed that it could take around eight attempts at exposure before infants accept foods. Infants who are breastfed for longer are more likely to accept more fruits and vegetables as children.
As children and adults, our food preferences continue to grow. Individuals will develop a food preference based on their interaction with the food. Your interaction with food is influenced by food texture, appearance, flavour as well as your culture, expectations of that food, previous food experiences, psychological state, time of day and occasion. All of these play a role in food acceptance. Food choices can be influenced by social-cultural factors. These factors include food prices, food availability, cultural appropriateness as well as family, peer and role model influence. Peer pressure in both children and adults could play a role in food choices as this could have an impact on social acceptance. Food choice will also be influenced by various personal factors. Individual norms, beliefs, perceptions and knowledge will have a large impact on food choice. How food could affect self-esteem, body image and shape influences food choices, particularly in women. The contextual environment in which food is served, including lighting, comfort, interior design, music and climate could impact food choices. When looking at food choices in the context of marketing; product quality, price, packaging, promotion and availability could play a role in food selection. In our current society, it is fair to assume that the media plays one of the largest roles in food choice. Facebook, Instagram, Google searches on food trends, advertisements, current celebrity diets and social pressures linked to these could play a significant role in food intake, especially in the younger generation.
How do our genetics influence our food choices?
Are you into spicy or sweet tasting food?
Did you know that according to new studies, it's said that humans have about 30 genes that code for bitter taste receptors. Each receptor can interact with several compounds, allowing people to taste a wide variety of bitter substances.
Various genes could influence our taste, these can include PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil) tasters vs. non-tasters. PROP tasters have a higher sensitivity to bitter foods and are less likely to include bitter-tasting foods, like cruciferous vegetables. Individuals able to taste PROP are more likely to consume a larger quantity of dietary fat and are more prone to becoming obese. Having the ability to taste bitter compounds could have a large impact on food choice.
The TAS1R gene family are responsible for how sweet and umami tastes are perceived. The TAS2R genes are responsible for bitter taste receptors. PKD2L1 and PKD1L3 genes may influence sour taste perception.
TRP receptors located within your tongue help you to appreciate different tastes (sweetness, bitterness or umami), temperature sensations (warm/cold), and pain that comes from eating a spicy meal. Most spices often evoke warm sensations that may be subsequently surpassed by a recognisable sharp ‘burning’ aftertaste, that may lead to pain. Adverse effects associated with eating spicy foods include severe indigestion, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea. Those with a higher sensitivity to spice may also have a higher risk of developing conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Circle Premium tests the TRPV1 gene (gene plays a role in response to spices), which codes for the capsaicin receptor, a protein that activates the sensation of heat and pain. Certain genetic mutations mean that some individuals may have more sensitive receptors to various spices than others.
How's your sense of smell?
The way we perceive smell can influence our food choices. Olfactory dysfunction has been associated with a higher BMI. Variations in the OR gene have been associated with eating behaviour traits such as cognitive dietary restraint and hunger.
Do you have a propensity for binge eating?
There are various genes that have an influence on our appetite. Ghrelin is produced by the pancreas and the stomach and is involved in stimulating hunger. Genetic variations in ghrelin have been associated with binge eating. Leptin and CCK are neuroendocrine hormones that work to promote satiety. Genetics variants of leptin have been associated with an increased risk for extreme snacking behaviour. Whereas Genetics variants of CCK have been associated with extreme meal size. FTO, the fat mass and obesity gene, has largely been associated with obesity. FTO could influence appetite by decreasing leptin release and therefore decreasing satiety. GAD variants have also been associated with disordered eating behaviour, most notably an increase in carbohydrate intake.
To understand your eating behaviour better and food preferences, you need to get more inside into your genetic makeup. Getting tested is one way for you to empower yourself with tools that can help you establish a sustainable, healthier eating habit that is aligned with your DNA.