The study included 108 kids, aged 5 to 10, as well as their moms. It turned out that the children who preferred sweet solutions over salty ones tended to be tall for their age. And there was a slight correlation between sweet preference and a biomarker of growth found in the kids' urine.
Julie Mennella, the study's lead author and a biopsychologist at Monell, says that scientists have known for a while that kids prefer both sweeter and saltier tastes than adults, and that kids to like sugar and salt. But no one could say exactly why.
This study suggests it has to do with children's development — kids crave more energy and sugar because they're growing, Mennella tells The Salt. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, since kids who sought out more calories were probably more likely to survive.
The researchers also looked into children's' salt intake, and found that the kids who preferred the saltiest foods tended to have more body fat. Mennella says that kids' salt cravings might also be related to development, since our bodies associate salt with minerals essential to growth.
But the research, which Monday in the journal PLOS One, only shows that sweet and salty preferences are correlated to growth in children; it can't show exactly how they're related. Bigger, longitudinal studies would tell us more, Mennella says.
In the meantime, she says, the study does confirm just how hardwired kids are to consume super-sugary foods — like the candy and cereals that are now so heavily marketed to them. Nowadays, American children consume far and than they actually need.
And the widespread availability of these foods these days makes it easy for kids to overindulge, putting them at risk for obesity and diabetes, she says.
"When you understand the biology of taste, you realize how vulnerable they are to the food environment," Mennella says.
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Image: Sugary cereal, via Shutterstock