This affinity for foods high in sodium typically develops in the first six months of life when babies are fed starchy foods such as crackers or cereal. These foods are likely to form a lasting effect on the taste buds as they are often the greatest sources of sodium in a child’s diet so early on. Furthermore, researchers noted that babies fed only baby food and fruit during their first six months of life showed no preference for salted or unsalted foods.
As baby foods tend to be completely or mostly sodium free, infants are unable to develop a dependency on salt as a flavoring. The same children who were tested in their first six months were later tested between three and four years of age and those fed salt early on were found to show a preference for water with twice as much salt in it as those who were not. These children were also more likely to choose highly salty processed foods like hot dogs and chips as snacks.
What benefit does this knowledge potentially have for children in the future? As processed foods tend to be high in sodium, researchers hope this discovery will help tastes trend toward natural, whole foods, ultimately leading to a healthier diet. Diets high in sodium are also associated with high blood pressure and diabetes, and the elimination of foods with a high salt content may lead to a decline in these conditions, particularly the development of diabetes at a young age.
Some researchers, like John E. Hayes, Ph.D. of Pennsylvania, feel that the preference for salt may be inherent in some children, which would pose a challenge to the findings of this study. Whether the research proves true in the long term or not, to salt or not to salt a child’s food early on is ultimately up to the parents; however, they might want to take the potential lifetime benefits into consideration when making that decision.