As the global incidence of childhood obesity rises, researchers are examining whether differences in taste perception can influence eating behaviors. A recent study in Germany compared the taste sensitivity of obese and normal weight children and adolescents. Researchers found that obese youth identified taste qualities less precisely than their counterparts of normal weight (Arch Dis Child. 2012;97:1048-1052).
Explore this issue:April 2013
“Taste is a primary aspect by which children determine food acceptance,” the authors wrote. “It plays an essential role in eating behavior. In an evolutionary context, taste has an important function in the identification of valuable nutrition: Sweet tastes promise readily available calories, whereas bitter often indicates toxic substances.”
Sometime between early childhood and adolescence, taste sensitivity and quality undergo transformations. Newborns display a strong preference for sweets. During the second year of life, the nutritional shift from breast milk and formula to solid food coincides with a broadening of the taste spectrum, said Susanna Wiegand, MD, a co-author of the study and head of the pediatric obesity center at Charité Children’s Hospital-Universitätsmedizin Berlin. “There is clinical evidence that high sugar content at this period in life could cause the same fixation on sweet food and drinks for years, perhaps for the whole lifespan,” Dr. Wiegand said.
In the cross-sectional study, Dr. Wiegand and her collaborators compared the gustatory sensitivity of 99 obese children (body mass index >97th percentile) with 94 normal weight children (BMI <90th percentile), aged 6 to 18 years. They analyzed the sensitivity of five taste qualities—sweet, sour, salty, umami and bitter—using impregnated ‘taste strips’ in different concentrations. A total score was determined for all taste qualities combined, as well as one for each separately. Additionally, the possible influence of sex, age and ethnicity on taste perception was analyzed. An intensity rating for sweet was performed on a five-point scale.
Compared with the control group, the obese children showed a significantly lower ability to identify the correct taste qualities regarding the total score (p<0.001). When analyzing individual taste qualities, the obese participants displayed a dramatically decreased detection rate for salty, umami and bitter.
In the sweetness intensity category, 93 obese and 75 normal weight children and adolescents rated sweet taste strips according to intensity. Participants from both test groups rated higher concentrations of sweet higher on the sweetness scale. However, when compared with the control group, the obese children rated all concentrations lower on the intensity scale and gave remarkably lower intensity ratings to three of the four concentrations.