What parent hasn’t purchased a begged-for box of cereal, multi-pack of yogurt or a carton of fruity drink only to see it abandoned after one taste? If parents don’t know what their kids will eat, imagine how much harder it is for the developer to create a food flavor that will keep kids coming back for more.
There is no standard blueprint for kid-friendly design. Not only do children’s preferences differ as much as their personalities, but tastes change as children develop into adolescence.
How do children’s flavor preferences evolve? We learn about foods before our first taste of solid foods, according to Julie Mennella, Ph.D., Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia. Our first experiences with flavors are in amniotic fluid and breast milk. “We’ve shown that babies learn about these flavors, and they will be more accepting of a fruit or a vegetable if the mom eats these foods while she’s pregnant and lactating,” she says. “Once the babies are weaned, regardless of breast or formula fed, if the mother gives the baby a taste of the food or lets the baby eat the food for eight or nine days, they will be more accepting of that food. If the mother gives the baby a variety of foods, they will be more accepting of a new food. We know that flavor preferences established early in life track into later childhood.”
While it’s impossible for a developer to predict a child’s exposure and acceptance of a variety of foods, they can follow some general guidelines. “Children, babies, infants prefer things that are sweeter, and that preference doesn’t decrease until late teens,” says Mennella. “They prefer things that are saltier. And some children may reject bitter more when they are young.”
Gene variations make some people more sensitive to bitterness, especially in childhood. “But we really don’t have to learn to like sweet tastes, children are born with that,” Mennella says. “There have been studies that show sweets actually make them feel better. It reduces pain.” In addition to sweet and salty, almost all children like fat, she says, and about a third of them are partial to sour.
As children grow, their flavor preferences change. For younger children, keep it simple. “Younger kids, probably age 4 to 6 or 7, like single flavors and flavor combinations, but safe combinations,” says Marianne Swaney-Stueve, global manager youth research, IFF, New York. “It’s something that Mom knows and trusts and gives to her child.”
Jessica Jones-Dille, industry trend analyst, Wild Flavors, Inc., Erlanger, KY, says: “Products designed for young children are generally more mild and easier to understand from a concept point of view. Flavors are natural and simple for younger children.”
Tweens, ages 8 to 12, have more-daring tastes. “They are able to choose a little more what they want,” says Swaney-Stueve. “They’re trying to be independent and try new things.” That’s where “fantasy flavors” come in. These don’t “necessarily even have to say what fruit it is, but it is fantasy in name, and has a generic kid profile,” she explains. Things like arctic blast and riptide rush are examples of fantasy flavors. Fantasy flavors are especially popular in gum, beverages and yogurt.
Sometimes it’s image over actual flavor. While a beverage flavored with dragon fruit (also called pitaya) “fared well, a survey found that kids were more likely to try the product because of its unique name, not the flavor,” points out Dania Rosenthal, marketing manager, natural products division, Mastertaste, Teterboro, NJ.
Fantasy flavors lose their appeal at about age 12, according to Swaney-Stueve. “Fantasy becomes too elementary and too kiddy for them, so now you can even go a little more adult with some of your flavors, like looking at some coffee flavors, though they may not taste like coffee,” she says. “The intensity changes, too. As they get older, it doesn’t have to be so hit-you-over-the-head strong, and the profile is actually changing, too.” By the time children reach their teens, their preferences switch from kiddy, artificial, candy-type notes to much more true-to-fruit.