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Turns out, you can account for tastes

Published August 25, 2007


LONDON - Having trouble persuading your child to eat broccoli or spinach? You may have yourself to blame.

According to a study of twins, neophobia - or the fear of new foods - is mostly in the genes.

"Children could actually blame their mothers for this," said Jane Wardle, director of the Health Behavior Unit at University College London, one of the authors of the study in this month's American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Wardle and colleagues asked the parents of 5,390 pairs of identical and nonidentical twins to aswer questions on their children's willingness to try new foods.

Identical twins, who share all genes, were much more likely to respond the same way to new foods than nonidentical twins, who only share about half their genes. Researchers concluded that genetics played a greater role in determining eating preferences than environment, since the twins lived in the same household.

Wardle said food preferences appear to be "as inheritable a physical characteristic as height."

Unlike nearly every other phobia, neophobia is a normal stage of human development.

Scientists theorize that it was an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect children from accidentally eating dangerous things, like poisonous berries or mushrooms.

Neophobia typically kicks in at age 2 or 3, when children are newly mobile. Being unwilling to eat new things they stumble upon may be a lifesaver.

While most children grow out of the food fussiness by age 5, not all do. For parents of particularly picky eaters, experts encourage them not to cave in when their children throw food tantrums.

"Parents should not feel like they're doing something wrong if they keep trying but their child is not overjoyed to be eating brussels sprouts," said Marlene Schwartz of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, who is not connected to the study.

While most people will eventually like any food - even one they initially disliked - after trying it about 10 times, more persistence may be needed to convert a neophobic child.

Some experts think that neophobia is essentially a reflection of personality. People known as "sensation seekers," or those in search of new and intense experiences, tend to be willing to eat anything. Conversely, shy people tend to be reluctant to experiment with their palate.

[Last modified August 24, 2007, 23:03:21]

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