Disgusting food “contaminates” favourite nibbles for young eaters

Parents who try to get their infants to eat foods they don’t like by presenting them next to foods they do enjoy should beware - as a new study by a University of Derby psychologist suggests it is likely both foods will be instantly rejected.

Steve Brown carried out the study, published in the journal Appetite this April, with a sample of children aged 18 – 26 months old to investigate how the avoidance of new food in children (food neophobia) develops, and how it can lead to reduced variety in a child’s diet and anxiety over food.

It was found that putting a favourite food on the same plate as a disliked food could lead to them both being rejected.

Steve said: “We wanted to discover the role of the emotion ‘disgust’ in food neophobia and avoidance. Disgust seems to be a very a strong emotion for infants, and any new parent can tell you it is clear to see by their child’s expression.

“A key aspect of disgusting things is that that they have contaminating properties. If a fly lands on your sandwich for example, it seems contaminated and you no longer want to eat it. This natural reaction is useful as it protects people from consuming contaminated foods that could cause illness or death.”

In this study, Steve, along with Gill Harris from the University of Birmingham, tested whether children believe that food they like can be contaminated by something they believe to be ‘disgusting’ just by sitting next to it on the same plate.

Parents of 18 infants aged 18 – 26 months were asked to identify a food their child had previously rejected, and showed a ‘disgust’ reaction to, and a food the child always liked.

They were then asked to present the disliked food on its own, present the liked food on its own, present the liked food touching a disliked piece of food, and two liked foods touching, and record their child’s reactions.

“We found a significant number of the children rejected the food they usually liked when it was touching a food they didn’t like. Many of these children continued to refuse the ‘contaminated’ liked food until it had been exchanged for a new piece.

Steve added: “These results support the idea that children as young as 18 months old have a strong contamination response which may reflect feelings of disgust. This was not previously thought to influence food rejection until around seven years of age.

“As food neophobia and restricted eating begins during infancy, ‘contamination’ of liked foods as a result of the strong disgust response could be one of the bases of this reduction in the variety of foods a child will eat.”

In a further study, also to be published in the journal Appetite, Steve and Gill investigated whether young children aged four to six years old showed a contamination response when asked to rate how much they liked certain foods.

A significant contamination effect was found again in this age sample, with 16 out of 30 children not liking a previously liked food after it was presented touching a disliked food. This effect was significantly stronger in girls than in boys.

Steve said: “Previous studies have found higher levels of disgust in women than in men, and as we found a stronger and more prolonged sensitivity of food contamination in girls than boys in this study, it supports our idea that ‘contamination’ is a result of the disgust mechanism.”