In 1970, I was sitting in my elementary school science class when my teacher put an illustration of giant pink tongue on the overhead projector. Arrows pointed to the four areas of the tongue where specific tastes would be detected: sweet on the very tip and salty on either side of sweet. Sour was found on the outer margins of the tongue and bitter at the very back.
Boys and girls in my class nodded as they put pinches of salt or sugar on their tongues, affirming that they detected each specific taste in the correct spot. I sat there in silence with a secret literally on the tip of my tongue and now positive that something was drastically wrong with me: I didn’t have a tongue like that map. I detected the tastes everywhere I placed the pinch of sugar, salt, etc. Little did I know that millions of school children (including me) were spoon-fed a science lesson based on a misinterpretation of research.
The tongue map originated in a brief, subjective study from 1901 by D.P. Hanig. Harvard University’s Edwin Boring used Hanig’s raw data to develop levels of sensitivity on areas of the surface of the tongue. Those variations in sensitivity are quite small and insignificant, yet science textbooks failed to mention this detail. The tongue map oversimplifies the facts, as proven by the 1974 research by Virginia Collings, who showed we detect tastes across the entire tongue surface and even on the soft palate and uvula.
Today, a fifth distinct taste, umami, is recognized in the literature, although it was already widely accepted in the Asian culinary world at the time of Hanig’s initial research. Umami comes through prominently in savory meats like lamb shank or in bouillon cubes, vegemite and Worcestershire sauce. Chefs devote entire cookbooks to showcasing this one taste.
But, rarely do we just detect an isolated taste at mealtimes. We detect flavors. Simply put, taste plus smell equals flavor. This happens because as food enters the mouth, olfactory receptors found in the oral and nasal cavities send feedback to the brain at the same time the taste receptors do their job. Add in other oral sensations such as texture, temperature, spice and other characteristics known as “mouth feel,” and no two flavor experiences end up the same.
Therein lies the issue when it comes to picky and selective eating. Feeding therapy would be much simpler if a hesitant eater needed only to learn to tolerate new tastes. However, they must learn to tolerate flavor. Kids with feeding disorders often experience a limited repertoire of comfortable flavors. Their preferred foods often feature similar, basic characteristics. They might describe favorite food traits as “salty” or “meltable in the mouth” or “at room temperature,” but one common denominator remains: all the foods are familiar to their mouth and to their brains. The child finds comfort and safety in familiar sensations.
Consider processed foods and the flavors picky eaters may crave. Often, picky eaters insist on the consistent combo of salty plus the crunch of corn chips or “cooked just right” boxed macaroni and cheese. These flavor stay the same over time and manufacturers know to keep recipes consistent for customers. The flavors of seasonal fruits and vegetables, however, change slightly as each comes in and out of season.
Selective eaters find homemade dishes—like lasagna, for example—with multiple ingredients exceptionally challenging, because the flavor sensation might change with each preparation. Plus, re-heating creates a new, complex sensory experience. Also, frequent and consistent exposure to lasagna isn’t as simple as a grabbing a bag of chips from any checkout line. Parents who worry about a child’s willingness to eat feel safest offering only preferred foods. Thus, the dependency on consistent flavors gets reinforced, and understandably so.
Although children in feeding treatment rarely receive the same interventions, these four basic strategies can help SLPs work with clients to build familiarity with various foods over time:
- Expose the child to the sight of new foods on his plate, even if he’s not ready to taste them.
- Determine what characteristics the preferred foods share and slowly expand to new foods by changing one characteristic at a time.
- Isolate aspects of flavor, such as smell, but using sealed containers opened just slightly to experience new aromas. Spice jars with tiny holes and swivel tops to control the amount of exposure are ideal. Inexpensive pill containers offer another option to store a tiny amount of food for the child to experience the smell and possibly taste.
- Construct and deconstruct. Kids who help construct a recipe via gardening, shopping at the farmer’s market, food prep and cooking benefit by experiencing the essence of flavors outside their mouths first. Allow kids to deconstruct complicated flavors by creating taco bars, salad bars and even a lasagna bar, where kids pick and choose what elements of the recipe they will experience on its own. Encourage them to include one “constructed” version (a loaded taco) on their plate, too.
More tips on working with parents of selective or picky eaters:
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children, birth to teens, who have difficulty eating. She is the co-author of “Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook—A Stage by Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating,” the author of “Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids,” and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD, “Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs That Celebrate the Joy of Food!” Melanie@mymunchbug.com