Thousands of children are putting their palates to the test these school holidays to uncover the role texture plays in picky eating, as part of an international citizen science experiment.
Deakin’s Centre for Advanced Sensory Science (CASS) is hosting the project at Melbourne’s Scienceworks in January, with the hope of finding novel ways to combat the fussy eating that affects up to one in two children and can drive their parents crazy.
Lead researcher Dr Georgie Russell said the study would be the first of its kind to test children’s oral sensitivity.
“There is some evidence that food fussiness is more common in children who are more sensitive to touch generally, and reject food partly due to its texture. But food texture, mouthfeel and fussiness are still quite unexplored in terms of the scientific links,” Dr Russell said.
“There are certainly some commonly disliked foods that seemed to have a textural connection. Foods that are slimy can be rejected by fussy children, along with foods that are lumpy, or have bits in them.
“Depending on how a food is prepared, this can affect the texture. Children might like raw crunchy carrots, but not like them if they’re cooked until they’re soggy. Likewise with tomatoes, children might like them pureed in a sauce, but not like them raw.
“We can also see this with preferences for processed foods with simple textures, compared with whole foods with more complex textures, which can relate to overconsumption and related issues with childhood obesity.
“The sense of touch is an important one. It is our oldest, most primitive and pervasive sense yet we know little about the sense of touch in the mouth – as opposed to other parts of the body – and how this relates to our food choices and intakes.”
To test texture sensitivity in the mouth, children will be given a plastic stick with a cube on the end similar to a square lolly pop. There will be grooves on these cubes, some wider and further apart, some shallower and closer together.
Children will place the cube on their tongue and be asked to determine if the grooves are running horizontal or vertical. The children who can identify the differences in the position of cubes with shallower grooves are more sensitive to touch.
The Deakin researchers will then look at how this touch sensitivity changes with age and gender, and how it relates to food liking and choice. This data will be connected with international colleagues to develop important research examining how food texture can be manipulated to encourage healthy diets, particularly for children.
“Now and into the future, we need to learn strategies for selecting and consuming foods that promote health for individuals and for the planet,” Dr Russell said.
“This is a difficult task when there are so many delicious, high-energy foods easily accessible to us. For children in particular, we need to know more about how we raise children who like and consume healthy foods, in appropriate amounts.
“If we can learn more about the origins and influences on food fussiness we can help parents support children who are fussier to enjoy a wide range of foods.”
Dr Russell said estimates of the prevalence of fussy eating in Australian kids ranged from around 13 per cent to 50 per cent at some point in childhood.
“Fussiness in children can be hard to categorise. For most kids fussy eating tends to peak around preschool and declines thereafter, but anywhere between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of children continue to be fussy up until around 10 years of age,” she said.
“There’s no evidence to show fussy eating is increasing, but we do know that fussiness can cause many parents to feel worried about their children’s eating.”
Dr Russell said fussiness or pickiness usually involved consuming a limited range of foods along with a tendency to avoid new foods.
“Fussier children also tend not to enjoy eating, they eat slowly and tend to get full up quickly,” she said.
“There is a significant inherited component to fussiness, but there is also an environmental contribution such as exposure to different food environments and how children are fed.
“It’s also interesting to note that studies show fussy children have different temperaments to less fussy children. They are typically shyer and more fearful than children who tend to enjoy food and eating.”
Families attending Scienceworks with kids aged five to 12 will have the chance to participate in the CASS research activities at Scienceworks’ STEM lab from 11 to 24 January. As well as touch testing there will be virtual reality activities, science experiments and education on food texture, taste and eating.
For more information visit https://museumsvictoria.com.au/scienceworks/whats-on/deakin-food-futures/.