Young children inherit their liking for roast lamb or fish pie from their parents but any enjoyment of vegetables and puddings is more likely to be influenced by their environment.
Cancer Research UK scientists studied the food preferences of more than 200 pairs of same-sex twins and found that the “heritability factor” is stronger with high protein foods than any other kind.
The report*, published online, suggests that while nature decides whether children like meat and fish, it is nurture that seems to be most influential when it comes to broccoli, carrots and sponge pudding.
Professor Jane Wardle, of Cancer Research UK’s health behaviour unit, who led the study, said: “Finding out more about why children like and dislike foods is important in helping us understand the problems of obesity. Childhood obesity can lead to a number of health problems in later life including cancer.”
The study gave questionnaires to the mothers of 103 pairs of identical twins and 111 pairs of non-identical twins. Identical twins share all their genes and so comparing their food preferences with those of non-identical twins (who share only about half their genes) highlights the difference between what is inherited and what is influenced by environment.
Mothers of children aged between four and five were given a list of 77 foods divided into four different categories. The Meat and Fish category included beef, lamb, pork, chicken, bacon, fried fish, white fish and oily fish and results showed high heritability.
The Dessert Food category included cream, cakes, pastries, fruit pie, sponge pudding, custard and dairy desserts and results showed only moderate heritability.
The Vegetables and Fruit category included broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, salad greens, tomatoes, apples, bananas, grape, strawberries, peaches, citrus fruits and fruit juice. The results in this category found only modest heritability.
The study also showed that there was a trend for girls to like vegetables more than boys.
Prof Wardle said: “This is the first study to include significant numbers of protein foods and the first to show high heritability for these. But it is not clear exactly what environmental factors are influential when it comes to fruit, vegetables or puddings.
“It might be that children who witness their parents show enthusiasm or distaste for certain types of vegetables or puddings are likely to follow suit. Or it might be that if a particular food is always available children learn to like it. For instance if a fruit bowl is always full of bananas children might think of them as being a favourite food.”
Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said; “This study is important because it adds to our knowledge of understanding very young children’s food preferences. The more we know about this the better we can understand what leads to bad eating habits which brings with them a whole range of health problems including cancer.”
For media enquiries contact Sally Staples or Paul Thorne in the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300, or the out of hours duty press officer on 07050 264059.
*Published online in the Journal of Physiology and Behaviour.
This study was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
The children were recruited from the Twins Early Development Study funded by the Medical Research Council.
Cancer Research UK surveys have shown that the majority of adults in the UK do not know that being overweight or obese is a serious risk factor for cancer.
Research shows that 12,000 cases of cancer could be prevented each year in the UK if the Body Mass Index of every adult did not exceed 25 – which is categorised as being overweight. A BMI of over 30 is categorised as being obese.
For more information about different types of cancer, diagnosis and treatment for patients and their families, visit Cancer Research UK’s patient information website.