Eating Smart Over the Festive Season

Priya Seetal

You might sometimes wonder, “Why do children love sweet foods more than adults?” Oh well, the answer might lie in a recently published scientific study that looked at the differences between adults and children’s ability to detect sweet taste.

This study was conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, USA and included 108 children, 172 adolescents and 205 adults, who ranged in age from 7-67. Researchers gave participants different pairs of sugar-water concentrations to taste and measured both the concentration that participants preferred and the lowest concentration at which they could detect the taste of sugar.

Results indicated that adults could detect 4g of sugar in 1.7 litres of water, while children needed for sugar to be in a more concentrated form i.e. 4g in 1.1 litres of water. These differences translated to children needing 40% more sugar in their water than adults in order to detect the sugar in it. Results also showed that children preferred a 50% higher sucrose concentration than adults. Adults preferred a less sweet taste i.e. 40g in 240ml of water, whilst children preferred drinks with 48g of sugar. This difference in detection of sugar between the age groups were statistically significant. In essence, this study shows that children grow out of their extreme liking and preference for sweet foods once they enter adulthood.

The authors attribute these findings to the notion that the ability to detect sweet taste (sweet-taste sensitivity) and sweet taste preference undergo distinct developmental trajectories from childhood to adulthood. Children require more energy per kilogram of their body weight than adults. This difference is attributed to the fact that children require extra energy for growth and development, compared to adults who are not in this growth phase. The reward centre found in the brain of children allows for the higher energy needs to be met. When children eat energy dense foods such as those containing sugar, the reward centre is triggered, and the feeling of pleasure, is experienced.

This experience makes children actively seek out energy dense foods in order to be rewarded with this feeling, thereby helping meet their high energy requirements. Upon entering adulthood, the reward centre places less value on sweet foods as the body’s energy requirements decrease. Adults, hence, prefer less sweet tasting foods than children. The sensitivity to sweet taste may be changes in the mouth and saliva upon entering adulthood making them able to detect sucrose at a more diluted level than children.

Priya Seetal is Nutrition Manager at SASA

1. Petty, S.; Salame, C.; Mennella, J.A.; Pepino, M.Y. Relationship between Sucrose Taste Detection Thresholds and Preferences in Children, Adolescents, and Adults. Nutrients 2020, 12, 1918.

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