Picky eaters and food neophobia

Picky eaters and food neophobia


For unknown foods, the nose acts as a sentinel and cries: “Who goes there?”  – Jean Brillat-Savarin


While there are those who love lamprey, and anxiously await for this genuinely seasonal delicacy, that during Autumn starts its journey into Portugal’s rivers, there are those who cannot event convince the idea that this giant bloodsucking parasite may even be seen as a meal. This example is quite common and even comprehensible, if we consider the overall oddity of this marine creature.

Human beings possess between 2000 and 4000 taste buds on their tongue, which are responsible for the detection of basic flavours, such as sweet, bitter, salty, sour and umami. There are also other structures in the esophagus, epiglottis, throat, palate, lips and cheeks which equally contribute to the perception of taste [1].

Basic flavours, as well as their intensity, when allied to our senses, make the preference to certain foods a highly individual act, where a universal consensus is hard to grasp.


Are you a picky eater?

Nonetheless, there is a wider scenario that envolves the exclusion of certain foods, and that I myself can observe in my surroundings, which is also approached and studied by the scientific community.

There are people, and I’m sure we all know someone like this, that present a strong resistance to experimenting and appreciating foods that are out of their comfort zone. Normally, these people show a strong refusal to a wide spectrum of foods and even with food usually used to in their family environment.

Scientific literature classifies this type of behavior in two categories: picky eaters and food neophobic. These are two different situations, which meet in some points, but show different manifestations. For the effect of this post, we won’t pick the two apart.

This refusal to new foods is usually associated more to children, but it is in the adult population where the question is lees socially acceptable.

Several studies have dwelled over the question and have set things straight, although this rejection of foods seems random, there are several causes and factors that strongly influence this kind of behavior, such as age, personality, culture, sensorial perception to temperature, texture, color and origin of the food.


But why does this happen?

Considering the obvious genetic predisposition, our food preferences start to arise very early in our lives, beginning in the chemical stimuli we receive from our mothers during gestation and breastfeeding.

When we look at food tantrums and the age factor, we ca observe that the peak in this behavior appears in the age group of 2 to 6 years-old, then loses strength during adolescence and plummeting during adulthood. On the other hand, the elderly, although mostly affected by a weakening sensorial sensitivity, tend to experience a renewed refusal for new foods.

It’s no mystery that people who have a lesser gustatory and olfactory perception show a higher acceptance when exposed to new types of food – that’s why our mothers told us to pinch our nose when we took medicine (although some were not that bad).

Meanwhile, people with gustatory and olfactive hypersensitivity easily refuse new foods due to the fact that they feel overwhelmed by certain flavors. In this case, stimuli associated to bitter and sour are more determinant than sweet and salty. Even neutral foods may generate some repulse; there are reports of people who cannot stand drinking water at room temperature.

It is also suggested that a reduced contact to new flavors and negative experiences with food, such as allergies, choking, vomiting and forced eating may be in the basis of this behaviour.

The food regimen of picky eaters is clearly less diverse, and tens to exclude vegetables in detriment to cereals and processed foods, which is due to the flavor uniformity that these products present. Last, but not least, picky eaters tend to present a higher tendency to present symptoms of obsessive compulsive or depressive nature, more so than people who eat more freely [2, 3].


Need for investors!

This is still a little approached subject in most mediums, and there are no clear lines on where to proceed to minor the implicit effects of food refusal, which may also lead to social outcasting.

Is this a reality to which the food industry may be alert to, and display options, as it does for vegetarians and food intolerants? Will we see the rise of the first restaurant for picky eaters (excluding, of course, McDonalds)?

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