The message to parents: It is not your cooking; it is your genes.
The study, led by Dr. Lucy Cooke of the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London, was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in August. Cooke and others in the field believe it is the first to use a standard scale to investigate the contribution of genetics and environment to childhood neophobia, or the fear of new food.
According to the report, 78% is genetic, and the other 22% is environmental.
"People have really dismissed this as an idea because they have been looking at the social associations between parents and their children," Cooke said. "I came from a position of not wanting to blame parents."
Nutritionists, pediatricians and academic researchers have recently shifted focus to children who eat too much instead of those who eat too little. However, cases of obesity are less frequent than bouts of pickiness.
In some families, communal meals become brutal battlegrounds, if they have not been altogether abandoned. Cooks break under the weight of devising a thousand variations on macaroni and cheese. Strolls through the farmers' markets are replaced with trudges down the frozen food aisle.
Most children eat a wide variety of foods until they are around 2, when they suddenly stop. The phase can last until the child is 4 or 5. It is an evolutionary response, researchers believe. Toddlers' taste buds shut down at about the time they start walking, giving them more control over what they eat.
"If we just went running out of the cave as little cave babies and stuck anything in our mouths, that would have been potentially very dangerous," Cooke said.
Even though food neophobia appears to be genetic, doctors say parents of picky eaters can not just surrender and boil another pot of pasta.
"We have to understand that biology is not destiny," said Patricia Pliner, a social psychology professor at the University of Toronto. "This doesn't necessarily mean there is nothing we can do about the environment."
People who study children prone to flinging themselves on the floor at the mention of broccoli agree that calm, repeated exposure to new foods every day for five days to two weeks is an effective way to overcome a child's fears.
From the October 22, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash