What are little boys made of? Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails. What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice. The famous nursery rhyme depicting the differences between little boys and girls dates back to the 19th century, however now recent studies have found a gene that makes certain foods taste better to females and suggests they may prefer sugary and sweet foods.
Published in the Journal Appetite, a study of 150 four-year-olds looked at an association between a specific gene variant (exon III seven-repeat allele (7R) of DRD4) and activity in the brain’s dopamine pathways.
The study analysed the girls eating habits to see if they favoured specific foods over others because they gave them more pleasure. The dopamine pathways or more commonly known as the brain’s reward centre was recorded as they light up during pleasurable activities ranging from eating chocolate to the effects of drugs.
Children were given an offered a variety of foods as a test snack with their saliva samples taken for testing of the 7R variation. Foods included frosted flakes, sliced apple, muffin with chocolate drops, 3.25% milk, baked beans, croissant, a cooked egg, cheddar cheese, All Bran, white bread and orange juice.
A table with two sets of plates were placed in the centre of the room, with chairs for mother and child on both sides facing each other. Mothers completed a questionnaire about the kind of foods their child usually ate. The study concluded that in girls, carriers of the gene variation (7R) ate more fat and protein during the snack test than those without the gene.
Food diaries also suggested that carriers of the gene variation specifically ate more portions of ice cream and less vegetables, eggs, nuts and whole grain bread. The study moves away from the conclusion that girls are inclined to prefer sweet foods, however says the taste is enhanced in certain sweet foods and provides with an insight into the ‘sweet tooth’ gene. A child’s eating behaviour may be influenced by many factors, including environment, mood, genetic differences, and most importantly, upbringing.
The earlier encouraged a child to adopt healthy eating patterns, the more likely they may grow into healthy adults. A selection of healthy food ideas promoted by the NHS for children include lunches and dinners such as: Cauliflower cheese with cooked pasta pieces, baked beans (reduced salt and sugar) with toast, shepherd’s pie with green vegetables, minced chicken and vegetable casserole with mashed potato and fish poached in milk with potato, broccoli and carrot.
Promoting healthy snacks and increasing the intake of fruit and vegetables may be vital, here are some alternatives to cake and chocolate based snacks: Rice pudding or porridge, fresh fruit, unsweetened yoghurt, unsalted rice cakes, carrot sticks, small cubes of cheese and fromage frais.
The study was carried out by researchers from a number of universities in Canada as well as the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, Brown University in the US, and The Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore. As part of an ongoing cohort study researchers are also following pregnant women and their children from birth until the age of 10.
The authors say one important contributor to challenging eating behaviour, such as binge eating and weight challenges may be a sensitivity to the rewarding aspects of food. The study has set up a good platform for future research into the effect of genes and eating habits whilst providing a scientific reason for woman to enjoy their puddings a little bit more.
How might this new research benefit children’s eating habits?