The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has spent nearly $1.5 million studying how infants think about food.
The project, "Infants’ and Children’s Reasoning About Foods," is being conducted by the University of Chicago and so far has determined that young children would rather not eat food that someone has licked or sneezed on.
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"Good nutrition is important for health and longevity, yet many Americans do not consume nutritionally sound diets," according to the grant for the project. "Evidence suggests that infants' and children's earliest patterns of eating have lasting consequences for health across the lifespan."
The premise for the study is that there is a dearth of research about how babies think about eating.
"Despite the complexity and significance of food selection, developmental psychologists have devoted surprisingly little attention to studying how infants and children perceive, learn, and reason about foods," the grant said. "The current proposal employs methods from cognitive development to test social influences on infants' and children's food choices and consumption."
The researchers characterize infants as having "limited knowledge in the food domain." Children aged three to six years old are "more knowledgeable than infants and toddlers about foods" but are "notoriously picky eaters."
The study involves examining how one-year-old infants reason about food and "non-food objects." Older children will be studied for how they choose which foods to eat.
The grant explains that three to six-year-olds "may be susceptible to social messages and contexts," and the project will study how a child’s race and gender influences what they eat.
The ultimate goal of the project is to change how children eat.
"This research aims to explore the mechanisms underlying children's food selection, with the eventual goal of effecting positive change in children's willingness to select healthy foods that are familiar and disliked, and limiting their selection of unhealthy foods that are familiar and liked," the grant said.
Published results for the $1.5 million study include a paper entitled, "Eww she sneezed! Contamination context affects children's food preferences and consumption."
The researchers found that three to eight-year-old children were not likely to eat foods if they were told that someone sneezed on them.