Baby food for thought

August 12, 2016 by Jim Logan
Credit: University of California - Santa Barbara

If you want your baby to love broccoli, you better love it, too, because that tiny human is watching you to learn which foods are good and bad. That's one of the takeaways in a new paper by a UC Santa Barbara researcher who investigated the way infants reason in socially smart ways about food.

"A main finding from this research is that babies learning about is fundamentally social. When they see someone eat a food, they can use the person's reaction to the food to learn about the food itself, such as whether it is edible, and also to learn about the people who are eating the food," said Zoe Liberman, an assistant professor in UC Santa Barbara's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Past studies, she noted, suggested that babies weren't especially smart thinkers when it came to food. As any parent will tell you, they'll put just about anything in their mouths, even if it's poisonous.

But infants' thinking about food, Liberman said, is more much more sophisticated than we've given them credit for. In addition to learning about whether foods are generally good vs. bad, which is a skill humans share with other animals (including chimpanzees and rats), babies' expectations about food preferences, she explained, are fundamentally social. Babies understand that what someone eats can provide information about that person's social group. "Babies don't just learn that a food is good, they learn that a specific kind of people like that food. For example, we found that if infants see an English-speaker like a food, they expect other English-speakers to agree, but don't necessarily think somebody who speaks a different language, like Spanish, will agree."

Liberman, who conducted her research at the University of Chicago, said these early food choices serve as a kind of introduction into cultural identity and social relationships. "Eating is a very social activity," she said. "There's a great quote attributed to Epicurus. He says, 'We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf.' His point still rings clear today: It's not only about what you're eating, it's about who you're with, and how the people you eat with might influence your food choices." Infants seem to already understand that the foods a person chooses to eat can provide important information about that person's social identity.

Expanding an infant's palette

Liberman also found that social reasoning about food is flexible. Whereas infants growing up in monolingual environments refrained from generalizing food preferences across people who spoke different languages, infants who grew up in multilingual families continued to generalize food preferences even across people who spoke different languages. That suggests, she noted, "even though infants think about food as intimately connected to social relationships and social groups, the exact information that each baby uses to decide whether people are from the same may be different, based on their own social experiences.

"For instance," she continued, "whereas monolingual babies might think people who speak different languages are fundamentally different types of people, who may then eat different foods, with multilingual exposure may regularly see social interactions between people who speak different languages, and therefore be more flexible in their expectations about who will share food preferences."

The research might even provide some insight into why it's so difficult to introduce "adult" foods to American children. Many cultures don't have foods that are specifically made for kids. In these cultures, children eat what their parents eat. "Because eating is a culture experience, when everyone around a child eats the same food, and expects the child to join in, then the child is given the opportunity to learn how their culture prepare foods, and to learn rituals surrounding what people from their culture eat," Liberman said. "These types of social dining experiences can certainly influence children's own food preferences and willingness to try different foods."

Liberman's paper, co-authored by Amanda L. Woodward, Kathleen R. Sullivan and Katherine D. Kinzler of the University of Chicago, appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Explore further: Infants show ability to tell friends from foes

More information: Zoe Liberman et al. Early emerging system for reasoning about the social nature of food, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1605456113

Related Stories

Infants show ability to tell friends from foes

January 8, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Even before babies have language skills or much information about social structures, they can infer whether other people are likely to be friends by observing their likes and dislikes, a new study on infant ...

Love the cook: Attraction to comfort food linked to positive social connections

March 27, 2015
A big bowl of mashed potatoes. What about spaghetti and meatballs? Sushi? Regardless of what you identify as comfort food, it's likely the attraction to that dish is based on having a good relationship with the person you ...

Study of brain activity shows that food commercials influence children's food choices

August 12, 2016
Food advertising is a multi-billion dollar industry, with approximately $1.8 billion annually aimed at children and adolescents, who view between 1,000 and 2,000 ads per year. Some studies have shown that there is a relationship ...

Mindful eating helps to lose weight—and keep it off

April 21, 2016
Losing weight is difficult, and keeping it off can be even harder. Many people regain the weight because typical weight loss diets involve drastic, unsustainable changes. Alternatively, learning to eat "mindfully" can fundamentally ...

Dine with a light eater if you want to consume less

May 11, 2015
How much food your dining companion eats can have a big influence on how much you consume, a UNSW Australia-led study concludes.

Infants know plants provide food, but need to see they're safe to eat

January 30, 2014
Infants as young as six months old tend to expect that plants are food sources, but only after an adult shows them that the food is safe to eat, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the ...

Recommended for you

High-fat diet in pregnancy can cause mental health problems in offspring

July 21, 2017
A high-fat diet not only creates health problems for expectant mothers, but new research in an animal model suggests it alters the development of the brain and endocrine system of their offspring and has a long-term impact ...

To combat teen smoking, health experts recommend R ratings for movies that depict tobacco use

July 21, 2017
Public health experts have an unusual suggestion for reducing teen smoking: Give just about any movie that depicts tobacco use an automatic R rating.

Opioids and obesity, not 'despair deaths,' raising mortality rates for white Americans

July 20, 2017
Drug-related deaths among middle-aged white men increased more than 25-fold between 1980 and 2014, with the bulk of that spike occurring since the mid-1990s when addictive prescription opioids became broadly available, according ...

Aging Americans enjoy longer life, better health when avoiding three risky behaviors

July 20, 2017
We've heard it before from our doctors and other health experts: Keep your weight down, don't smoke and cut back on the alcohol if you want to live longer.

Parents have critical role in preventing teen drinking

July 20, 2017
Fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol but more needs to be done to curb the drinking habits of Australian school students, based on the findings of the latest study by Adelaide researchers.

Fresh fish oil lowers diabetes risk in rat offspring

July 19, 2017
Fresh fish oil given to overweight pregnant rats prevented their offspring from developing a major diabetes risk factor, Auckland researchers have found.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.