Children’s snacking choices – whether they prefer sweet, fatty or bitter flavours – could be genetically pre-programmed and understanding this could help people make healthier choices, new research suggests.
Genetic variants in taste receptors related to sweet preference, fat taste sensitivity and aversion to bitter green leafy vegetables influence the snacks chosen by pre-schoolers, lead researcher Elie Chamoun from the University of Guelph concluded. According to the study, published in the journal Nutrients, this genetic predisposition influences whether children opt for crackers, cookies or vegetable-based snacks. Kids are eating a lot more snacks now than they used to, and we think looking at how genetics can be related to snacking behaviour is important to understanding increased obesity among kids,” said Chamoun, a PhD candidate in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences and a member of the Guelph Family Health Study. “This new research could help parents understand how their kids taste, and tailor their diet for better nutritional choices.”
Chamoun found that nearly 80% of children included in the study carried “at least one” of these potential at-risk genotypes that could predispose them to snacking habits. While the study did not compare snacking patterns between those who do and don’t have these genotypes, Chamoun told FoodNavigator he would expect to see a significant difference in behaviour. “I did not conduct any stats on the 20% versus 80%, but it is likely that the children who were part of the 80%, who possessed at least one of the three genetic variants studied, ate more unhealthy snacks,” he suggested.
The study tracked the daily diets of nearly 50 pre-school children. The participants’ saliva was tested to determine their genetic taste profile. The researchers discovered snacks made up approximately one-third of the children’s diets on average, with key distinctions between the habits of those with different taste receptors. Children with a preference for sweet flavours ate snacks with “significantly more calories from sugar. These snacks were primarily consumed in the evening. “It’s likely these kids snacked more in the evening because that’s when they are at home and have more access to foods with high sugar,” said Chamoun. Children with the genetic variant related to fat taste sensitivity consumed snacks with higher energy density. People with this genotype may have lower oral sensitivity to fat and therefore consume fattier foods without realising it, Chamoun stipulated. Meanwhile, children with the genetic variant related to avoiding bitter vegetable flavours also consumed snacks with high energy density. “They might be replacing those healthy veggies with unhealthy snacks. This is why they may be consuming more energy-dense snacks, because they are avoiding the healthy ones,” Chamoun suggested. This study is the first in an emerging area of nutrition research. If researchers can establish a solid link between genetics and taste, then we can create tests that will help parents determine which genetic variants their children have, said Chamoun. “This could be a valuable tool for parents who might want to tailor their children’s diet accordingly. For example, if you know your child has a higher desire for sweet foods based on their genetics, you might be more likely to limit or reduce their accessibility to those foods in the home.”