Aug. 8, 2007 -- If your kids fear unfamiliar foods, don't blame your parenting -- blame your genes.
A study of 10,780 British twins shows food fear to be 78% inherited. Another 22% of food fear comes from environmental factors that affect one twin but not the other, report Lucy J. Cooke, MSc, of University College London and colleagues.
"Parents can be reassured that their child's reluctance to try new foods is not simply the result of poor parental feeding practices but is partly in the genes," Cooke and colleagues suggest in the Aug. 1 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The researchers included four items to assess fear of unfamiliar food -- they call it "food neophobia" -- in questionnaires given to parents of 8- to 11-year-old twins as part of the U.K. Twins Early Development Study.
The parents rated statements about their kids on a four-point scale ranging from "strongly agree to strongly disagree." The questions were:
- "My child is constantly sampling new foods."
- "My child doesn't trust new foods."
- "My child is afraid to eat things s/he has never had before."
- "If my child doesn't know what's in a food, s/he won't try it."
The researchers then compared results for fraternal twins (which have different genetic inheritances) to results for genetically identical twins. Identical twins were much more likely than fraternal twins to have the same degree of new-food phobia.
The results indicate "a strong heritable component to variation in [food] neophobia," Cooke and colleagues conclude. "This is a robust finding. Genetic research has consistently shown that shared genes rather than shared experience largely accounts for similarities in behavioral traits between family members."
Nevertheless, the researchers say parents should not despair if their child seems to have picky-eater genes.
"Research in laboratory and real-world settings has shown that neophobia for specific foods can be reduced," Cooke and colleagues note. "New foods can become familiar, and disliked foods liked, with repeated presentation."
The researchers warn that bribing kids to try new foods and punishing them for not eating are strategies that fail to achieve the intended effect.