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Sensory Aspects of Bitter and Sweet Tastes During Early Childhood

Hayes, John E. PhD; Johnson, Susan L. PhD

doi: 10.1097/NT.0000000000000201
Feature Article

The flavor of food arises from multiple sensory inputs, including taste, smell, and oral touch. Human preference for food is driven by both biology and previous experience. Hedonic responses for taste and chemesthesis (chemically initiated touch sensations) are generally hardwired, whereas hedonic responses for smell are almost exclusively learned. With time, individuals can also learn to like the initially aversive oral sensations, such as the bitterness of beer or the burn of chili peppers, through a variety of mechanisms. Encouraging the development of healthy eating habits early in life is considered to be an optimal strategy to reduce the risk of diet-related chronic diseases. Over the past 2 decades, much has been written about how individual differences in taste sensation, especially bitterness, may either predispose or prevent a person from making healthy food choices. A related but separate body of work has systematically explored perceptual interactions between various taste stimuli. Unfortunately, these findings are infrequently integrated within the context of eating real foods to consider how they may influence food choice in humans. This article briefly highlights some key findings and attempts to integrate them to provide new insights on how to best encourage appropriate child-feeding behaviors.

John E. Hayes, PhD, is an associate professor of Food Science and the director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at The Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.

Susan L. Johnson, PhD, is a professor of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the director of The Children’s Eating Laboratory in Aurora, Colorado.

No funding was received by the authors for the preparation of this article. This article appears in the Nutrition Today supplement, Sweet Taste Perception and Feeding Toddlers, funded by The Sugar Association.

Dr John Hayes receives salary support from the Pennsylvania State University and US Department of Agriculture Hatch Project Funds (PEN04565). In the past 5 years, he has received honoraria, travel expenses, and/or consulting fees from federal agencies, publishers, nonprofit organizations, trade groups, and corporate clients in the food industry. The Sensory Evaluation Center at The Pennsylvania State University routinely conducts taste tests for clients in the food industry to facilitate experiential learning for undergraduate and graduate students. Dr Susan Johnson receives salary support from the University of Colorado, the US Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, and The Sugar Association. She has also received honoraria and travel support from federal agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Correspondence: John E. Hayes, PhD, Sensory Evaluation Center, Department of Food Science, College of Agricultural Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University, 202 Rodney A Erickson Food Science Building, University Park, PA 16802 (

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