Step 1: Plain grapefruit juice=Yuk.  Step 2: Sweetened grapefruit juice=Yum.  Step 3: Plain grapefruit juice=? 

It’s pretty obvious that kids who don’t like unsweetened grapefruit juice might like it when it’s sugared-up.  However, research shows that kids can develop a taste for unsweetened grapefruit juice by getting them used to sweetened juice first.

It’s counterintuitive, but sugar can sometimes pave the way to new foods, even ones that aren’t sweet. I guess the old adage is right: you can catch more flies with honey (or in this case, you can catch more flavors with sugar).

The point I’m usually trying to hammer home is that serving sweet foods—no matter how healthy they are— trains your kids to like sweet foods.

And most of the foods you battle (or beg) your kids to eat just aren’t that sweet.  Broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower…  Read Training Tiny Taste Buds.

But here’s a way to use sugar to expand your kids’ repertoire.

Researchers have long known that sugar can facilitate a long-term preference for certain flavors, even when the sugar is removed… in rats.

The question is, are kids like rats?  Here’s the study:

1) Researchers asked a group of 2-5 year olds to drink and rate unsweetened grapefruit juice.

About half the kids liked the juice, and about half the kids didn’t.

2) The kids were asked to drink and rate sweetened grapefruit juice every day for 20 days.

Overall, the group of kids who originally liked the unsweetened juice stated no increased liking for the sweetened juice.  The kids who didn’t like the unsweetened juice, however, thought the sweetened stuff rocked!

3) Next, the children were given unsweetened juice to drink and rate once again.

Overall, the group of kids who initially disliked the unsweetened grapefruit juice now liked it.

To find out if the newfound liking for unsweetened juice would stick, the researchers went back two weeks later.  The findings were the same: The group of kids who initially disliked unsweetened grapefruit juice still liked it.

Researchers call this technique Flavor Preference Learning, but you probably know it as Learning to Like, or Developing a Taste for, something.

It’s unclear exactly why sweetened juice teaches kids to like unsweetened juice. It may be that the sugar doesn’t completely mask the taste of the grapefruit so exposing kids to the sweetened juice still gets them used to the grapefruit flavor.

It may also be that the sweetened juice helps children develop the idea that they like grapefruit juice, and that idea stays with them over time. After all, a lot of what we like is in our minds.  Read Mind Over Matter.

Don’t try to figure out what flavors your children will like (an experiment of searching for a needle in a haystack if there ever was one). Teach your kids to like what you cook instead!

In a variation of the grapefruit juice study, researchers found that sweetening broccoli and cauliflower 3 times was enough to increase how well college kids rated these vegs in their unsweetened form.

So what’s the takeaway?  Taste preferences are much more nurture than nature.  And a little sugar can go a long way.

(Remember, contrary to appearances, when kids are tossing, spitting, gagging and, yes, sometimes even swallowing, their taste preferences are still being shaped — often towards the very foods they seem to be rejecting.  Read Why Some Kids Should Spit.)

For more on teaching kids to taste and rate read Unleash Your Toddler’s Inner Food Critic!, and Nix the Negativity.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~


Source: Capaldi, E. D. and G. Privitera. 2008. “Decreasing Dislike for Sour and Bitter in Children and Adults.” Appetite 50: 139-45.