Taste for salt may be shaped during infancy

Could what you eat as a child determine your tolerance for salt as an adult? One study says yes.

Story highlights

  • A new study suggest that preferences for salt are developed at an early age
  • Babies are more likely to enjoy the taste of salt if they have been given starchy foods
  • Delaying early exposure to sodium could help create a nation less fond of salt
People who sprinkle salt on everything and gravitate toward unhealthy high-sodium foods may be expressing a taste preference formed during early infancy, a small new study suggests.
Researchers found that six-month-old babies are more likely to enjoy the taste of salt if they have already been given starchy table foods such as cereal and crackers, the most common source of sodium for babies.
And this affinity for salt appears to be lasting. Once they'd reached preschool age, the kids in the study who were exposed to sodium as infants were apt to prefer salty foods such as potato chips, hot dogs, and french fries -- and some showed signs of being salt fanatics, going so far as to lick salt crystals off pretzels or eat salt plain.
By contrast, infants who stayed on baby food in their first six months, or who were given only fruit in addition to baby food, were more likely to be indifferent to salt as they matured.
"The implication is that this very early dietary experience may have a prolonged effect on how much individuals like the taste of salt," says Leslie J. Stein, Ph.D., the lead author of the study and a senior research associate at Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia.
The findings, published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, raise the possibility that delaying early exposure to sodium could help create a nation of adults who are less fond of salt and high-sodium foods, both of which can raise blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke when consumed to excess.
"In Paleolithic times infants had breast milk for two to three years, but in modern culture, many kids go to processed foods, where the factory decides how much salt to put in," says Philip J. Klemmer, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, in Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the new research.
The way the babies in the study seem to have developed a taste for salt is "almost like imprinting," Klemmer says, referring to the process by which infants bond with their parents and learn other social behaviors.
When babies are born, they don't react to the taste of salt like they do to other tastes, such as sweet or bitter. "Either the baby can't detect salt or the baby just doesn't care about salt," Stein says. But babies begin to register salt taste sometime between the ages of two months and six months.
To explore what's behind that shift, Stein and her colleagues gave bottles filled with plain water and two saltwater solutions -- one salty (2% sodium) and one not so salty (1%) -- to 61 two-month-old infants, and gauged their preference by measuring how much of each they drank.
Then, when the babies were six months old, the researchers repeated the test and also surveyed the mot