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Melissa Little

Pediatric and Antenatal Dietician. She is a spokesperson for the British Dietetics Association on TV and in print. Member of the parliamentary group for a Fit and Healthy Childhood at Westminster for the UK Government.
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Child Nutrition

Is your child a picky eater or a super taster?

Some children are very picky eaters. Some of this fussiness may be down to how children were introduced to new flavours and textures. However, there is evidence that a subset of people are 'supertasters.' Unfortunately being a supertaster isn't a super power. It means these children are more sensitive to some flavours and as a result may dislike strong tasting vegetables such as sprouts and radicchio.
In Short
'Supertaster' is a label that describes around one-quarter of adults and children who have a strong sensitivity to taste, especially bitter tastes.

The tongues of supertasters have more taste buds, and they often find foods with some bitter flavours unpalatable. For example, sprouts and broccoli can taste delicious to many of us but unbearable to supertasters.

Girls and women are more likely to be supertasters as are people with African, Asian and South American heritage.

Around 25% of the general population are supertasters. Of the rest of the population, half are considered medium tasters, leaving another quarter at the other end of the scale from the supertasters – they are the so-called non-tasters.

Supertasting is genetically inherited and leads to a higher density and number of taste buds on the tongue which sends messages about flavour and taste to the brain.

Supertasters are significantly more sensitive to bitter tastes (often found in vegetables) and display less enjoyment of fatty and sugary foods but more of a preference for salty foods. As a group, they tend to weigh less. In fact, it is thought that plants have evolved these bitter chemicals and toxins to deter animals (including us) from eating them. The wild versions of many of the vegetables we love to eat are very bitter but over generations of breeding and agriculture, we have tended to grow milder, less bitter flavours.

Is there a supertaster test?
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To test whether or not someone is a supertaster depends on their sensitivity to a bitter compound called 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). Non-tasters can’t taste the bitterness of PROP, medium tasters don’t mind PROP but can taste it, while supertasters find the taste of PROP horrible.

As you may have guessed children taste PROP more strongly than adults and (unlike adults), children always taste the bitterness of PROP. This probably means that certain foods taste different to your children than they do to you. This might be the crux of the ‘picky eater.’

If your child is an extreme supertaster, they will find bitter compounds found in vegetables unpleasant and may not ‘eat their greens.’

New research published in 2016 has found that pickiness and neophobia (fear of new food) is significantly genetic in cause, especially in the first 16 months of life. However, attitudes around food and mealtimes did have an affect on a child’s pickiness too.

Good news for supertasters

The good news is that if your child is a supertaster, they will be sated with less sugar and fat, but on the downside supertasters often avoid nutritious dark green vegetables and crave more salt.

It should be noted that without a proper test (which are only available for adults to buy on the internet) you shouldn’t just assume that your child is a supertaster if they turn their nose up at broccoli and sprouts. Indeed, children are much more likely to eat and like food if they have seen it on their plate at least seven times. However, if you begin to see strong aversions to particularly bitter foods you may need to offer broccoli alongside another less bitter vegetable such as mangetout or fresh peas.

Model a happy, healthy and relaxed attitude to food

Girl eating bowl of carrots

It is still important to encourage children to experience a variety of flavours and textures but never force them to eat anything against their will. Praise fussy children for testing, licking or smelling food they think they won’t like. Supertasters are not affected by textures so if your child dislikes textured food this is more likely because he is picky or particular rather than any genetic supertasting reason.

Modelling a happy, adventurous and relaxed attitude to eating is an important part of being a parent. Try to encourage family meals where you all sit down together and eat together as a family. Children that are used to eating with the family and see their parents and siblings eating a range of food are more likely to have a positive attitude to mealtimes and new food.

References and further reading

Smith, A. D., Herle, M., Fildes, A., Cooke, L., Steinsbekk, S. and Llewellyn, C. H. (2016), Food fussiness and food neophobia share a common etiology in early childhood. J Child Psychol Psychiatr. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12647

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DISCLAIMER
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.