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Taste for Salt May Start in Infancy

Babies Given Starchy Foods Too Soon May Develop Preference for Salty Foods
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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. 

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