We all have our favorite foods and other foods that we dislike, but why? How does the taste of foods impact our eating habits and, in turn, our health?
Dr. Julie La Barba, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio and medical director for the new program Culinary Health Education for Families (CHEF), explored the connections between taste and food at the Children’s Hospital on Friday, Feb. 26, during a presentation to pediatricians, medical students, and the greater San Antonio health care community to demonstrate how taste impacts food preferences.
More than 14% of San Antonio’s population has diabetes– which is double the national 7% average, according to the American Diabetes Association. Eating healthier foods, having access to healthier foods and being aware of the medical health risks associated with consuming unhealthy foods is vital to the growing city.
To help guide the future of pediatric medicine within San Antonio, La Barba has committed to building a healthier food environment for children, and helping families, pediatricians and the community see how food, nutrition, and health can work together.
La Barba, along with CHEF’s Program Director Chef Maria Palma, presented how nature vs. nurture can impact a child’s preference for healthy or unhealthy foods.
Using educational videos and taste tests, La Barba and the local chef helped practitioners learn about taste and how it applies to medicine and healthcare.
“Taste preferences have cumulative effects on our overall health,” she said. “As a pediatrician, you are in a pole position to effect the ways family feed their children. They are looking to you for information.”
She went on to explain the medical science of how different foods can impact emotion and moods, and then had participants watch a film on neurogastronomy, showing how smell and sight tell the brain about taste and flavor.
La Barba reviewed learning objectives like the physiology of taste, genes vs. environmental impacts on taste, and how the brain works to determine flavor and taste. The ways taste and flavor can impact health depend on people’s “bliss point,” which triggers how one is fulfilled or satisfied, and some people are more prone to diseases like diabetes or alcoholism as they may need more food or drink to reach their bliss point.
She explained how different taste buds on the tongue and throat help the brain determine what is sweet, salty, bitter, sour, or umami (savory), and then told healthcare professionals about the science and triggers behind common taste preferences.
“Glutamate-rich sauces, (like) ketchup, increase food palatability, which is why kids will eat almost anything with ketchup,” La Barba said.
Food environments also impact our taste and our health where processed foods, usually filled with strong sugary or salty tastes, make us crave unhealthy foods more and can lead to more chronic disease.
Often, tastes of healthier vegetables turn away kids because of their bitter flavors, but this reaction is normal and natural, La Barba explained, since our genes make us react to these flavors as poison. Thus, we must become accustomed to new flavors, like coffee, beer, and other acquired tastes.
For instance, when these new tastes are introduced to young babies, many of them make faces that show disgust, but over time, and through various ways, kids learn to enjoy these tastes and can even acquire a sense of nostalgia to certain flavors as they grow to become adults.
La Barba summed up the discussion with evidence-based healthy feeding tips for parents, encouraging them to try new ways to incorporate more vegetables into children’s diets. She explained that repetition helps children develop a taste for unfamiliar foods like broccoli, asparagus, and other bitter vegetables that children are usually turned off to, because of the bitter taste. She hopes to encourage those in the medical and healthcare fields to recognize food and taste more often and see these important food aspects play a larger role in the future of medicine.
“We need to develop some new interventions, we need to provide further guidance to parents,” La Barba said. “Let them know that genetics are at play here and help parents understand evidence based do’s and don’ts.”
See Dr. La Barba’s do’s and don’ts to help kids incorporate healthier eating preferences below.
- Increase availability and palatability by offering healthy foods often and in different ways
- Model the desired behavior by eating what you want them to eat
- Incorporate different flavors to healthier foods (e.g. broccoli cooked with sesame oil to combat bitter taste)
- Give positive reinforcement
- Offer contingencies, rewards, bribes or threats (e.g. “If you eat this, I will give you that.”)
- Feel at fault or try to control everything they eat
- Use guilt or anger to make them eat healthier (e.g. “No one ate all these vegetables!”)
To learn more about future conferences, click here.
*Top image: A display of foods considered healthy. Photo courtesy the National Cancer Institute.