Dec. 21, 2011 -- Offering a baby a french fry, piece of bread, or even a handful of cereal may set him up for a lifelong affinity for salty foods and the health risks that go along with it.
A new study shows that babies fed starchy table foods, which often contain added salt, before 6 months of age show a preference for salt that persists through their preschool years.
Infants who had been introduced to starchy foods preferred a saltier drink and drank 55% more of the saltier drink during a test at 6 months of age.
By the time they were preschoolers, the same children were also more likely to lick the salt from foods and eat plain salt.
Researchers say the results suggest the ability to detect salty taste matures sometime between 2-6 months of age.
“There could be quite a bit of difference in how that taste for salt matures, depending on whether or not an infant is exposed to sodium during that period,” says researcher Leslie Stein, PhD, senior research associate at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
If confirmed by larger studies, experts say the findings suggest that early exposure to salty foods in the first few months of life could play an important role in setting flavor preferences for a lifetime.
How a Taste for Salt Starts
Eating too much sodium, often in the form of salt, is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure.
Curbing salt intake has been a major public health goal for years, but researchers say efforts thus far have been largely unsuccessful, in part because people like the taste of salt.
In the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers tested a group of 61 infants at 2 months and 6 months of age for salt preference by measuring how much they drank from three different bottles. One bottle contained plain water, another contained a moderately salty concentration of sodium (about the saltiness of commercial chicken soup), and a third contained a higher concentration of sodium (which tastes extremely salty to adults).
Researchers found that 2-month-old infants were indifferent or rejected the salt solutions.
But at 6 months of age, the infants who were already eating starchy table foods preferred both salty solutions to water. The babies that had not yet been introduced to these foods were still indifferent or rejected the salt solutions.
Exposure to other types of table foods, such as fruits and vegetables, was not associated with an increased preference for salt.
Years later, the mothers of the 26 children returned for questioning about their child’s eating habits as preschoolers between ages 3 and 4.
Researchers found that 12 preschoolers who were introduced to starchy foods before 6 months of age were more likely to lick salt from foods like pretzels and crackers and were also slightly more likely to eat plain salt.
Start Good Eating Habits Early
“What our study shows is that babies’ taste system is very malleable,” Stein tells WebMD. “If early exposure to salt increases the preference and taste for salt of an individual, then one might imply that down the road it might be harder to eat lower-salt food and enjoy it.”
Nutrition experts say the results emphasize the importance of starting healthy eating habits as early as possible.
“This study helps us appreciate that what we do in the first year of life is so important to how kids eat, how well they eat, how varied they eat, and what their food preferences are,” says pediatric nutritionist Jill Castle, RD.
Castle says that between 6 months and 8 months of age, babies should only be just starting to be exposed to starchy table foods like bread, crackers, and ready-to-eat cereals in small amounts. The bulk of their daily calories should still come from breast milk or formula, iron-fortified baby cereal, fruit, and vegetables.
Experts say many parents aren’t aware that ready-to-eat cereals, bread, crackers, and other starchy foods marketed to children contain sodium, which can add up over the course of the day if the child is eating a variety of these foods.
“There seems to be an increased preponderance of parents trying to choose those types of foods for their kids,” says pediatrician Christine Wood, MD. “These foods are being marketed as being appropriate for children, but I really try to focus in on parents trying to have the focus on a lot of fresh foods, fruits, and vegetables being the most important things.”
Aside from increasing the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease down the road, Wood says there are also more immediate health risks associated with children developing a taste for salty foods.
“We know that starchier foods in general are more calorie-dense foods,” says Wood, who is also the author of How to Get Kids to Eat Great and Love It! That may lead to a higher risk of childhood obesity.
Ways to Introduce Good Eats
Wood and Castle agree that the best advice for parents introducing their child to healthy foods is to keep food as wholesome and fresh as possible.
Their tips include:
- Keep fresh fruit and vegetables cut up and front and center in the refrigerator for easy access.
- Make whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce rather than macaroni and cheese out of a box.
- Introduce starchy foods like bread when age appropriate for your child (usually between 6-8 months of age).
- Choose less processed foods whenever possible.
The fewer foods that come out of a packaged box the better, Wood says. “Then you can control the amount of salt.”