Mother always said you have to eat a food to learn to like it. New research backs up that premise and takes it a step further. Preschoolers not only know what they like—sugar, salt and fat—but they also know which brands of food satisfy their individual palates.
According to a study conducted by T. Bettina Cornwell, a University marketing professor in the Lundquist College of Business, and Anna McAlister, a consumer science researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, children as young as 3-years-old who have a strong knowledge of fast food and soft drink brands also tend to have a high preference of sugar, salt and fat in their diets.
Cornwell said these children exhibit "flavor-hit behaviors", meaning they request certain flavors be added to foods they eat to match their taste preferences, such as ketchup, and seek out foods higher in flavor, including flavored potato chips or sour candies.
In a world where salt, sugar and fat have been repeatedly linked to obesity and poor health outcomes later on, waiting for children to begin school to learn how to make wise food choices is a poor decision, said Cornwell. "Our findings present a public policy message. If we want to pursue intervention, we probably need to start earlier."
Over the past two decades, the prevalence of obese children has doubled, while the number of obese adolescents has tripled, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Childhood obesity is linked to numerous health problems including asthma, sleep apnea, skin infections, menstrual abnormalities, joint pain, type II diabetes, high blood pressure and some cancer types. Childhood obesity can take its toll on emotional health as well, leading to low self-esteem, negative body image and depression, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Parents should seriously consider the types of foods they expose their young children to at home and in restaurants, says Cornwell. "Repeated exposure builds taste preferences by programming the brain and these preferences can last a lifetime."