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Danish schoolchildren show that girls have better taste

Close to 9,000 Danish schoolchildren actively participated in an experiment on eating habits and taste, experiencing hands-on research and generating knowledge that can be taken beyond their classroom walls. The research findings showed that girls have a more acute sense of ta...
Danish schoolchildren show that girls have better taste
Close to 9,000 Danish schoolchildren actively participated in an experiment on eating habits and taste, experiencing hands-on research and generating knowledge that can be taken beyond their classroom walls. The research findings showed that girls have a more acute sense of taste than boys (but boys have a sweeter tooth); that a third of schoolchildren prefer non-sweet soft drinks; and that children love fish and do not think of themselves as 'fussy eaters'. Tastes varied between regions, and teenagers had a different set of preferences from younger schoolchildren.

The 'mass experiment' was conducted in conjunction with an annual natural science festival at Danish primary and secondary schools, which made the participation of so many students possible. Food scientists from the University of Copenhagen organised the study and analysed the data.

The children were sent a kit containing taste samples and detailed instructions, to be followed during their regular science classes at school. The pupils were asked to complete a questionnaire about their eating habits and attitudes towards food, and to perform various practical tests.

The experiments were designed to establish the children's ability to recognise sweet and sour tastes of varying intensities, and which concentrations of sourness or sweetness they prefer. One test was a blind taste test in which students scored 10 different variants of the same soft drink with varying levels of sweetness and sourness. In another test, the youngsters coloured their tongues with bright blue food dye so that they could count their taste buds.

The results showed that girls are slightly better at recognising concentrations of both sweet and sour tastes than boys, and that this has to do with the way boys and girls process taste information. According to Michael Bom Frøst of the University of Copenhagen, 'The experiment showed that boys and girls have largely the same number of taste buds. So it would appear that what makes the difference is the way in which boys and girls process taste impressions.'

Boys tended to prefer more extreme flavours than girls, giving top marks to the sourest samples, and most preferred the super-sweet soft drink. Interestingly, almost a third of the children preferred non-sugary soft drinks: around 30% of the students chose variants containing little or no sugar.

According to the head of the project, Bodil Allesen-Holm of the University of Copenhagen, these findings provide food for thought for parents and the food industry alike: more varied and healthy food products and snacks for children and young people (including perhaps a range of products with 'extreme' or sour flavours for boys) could easily be developed, she said.

'Soft drinks for children and young people do not always have to contain a lot of sugar,' said Ms Allesen-Holm. 'It is quite clear that children and young people are very good tasters, and that there are bigger variations between them than most people would expect.'

The questionnaires revealed that approximately 70% of Danish schoolchildren like fish, and that they are open to tasting 'exciting' foods. Up to 59% of the children did not consider themselves 'fussy eaters'; this went for both sexes. Overall, the children who preferred sour flavours were most open to tasting new foods.

The study also showed that between childhood and teenage years the sense of taste changes dramatically. Over time the ability to recognise tastes increases gradually, with the greatest shift seen at age 13-14 when children become much more sensitive to sour tastes. In this group, the taste for very sweet things (held by 48% of the younger group) begins to fade.

Regional taste differences opened up new avenues for inquiry. Pupils in northern Denmark were much better at recognising sour tastes: they needed only 0.37 grams of citric acid per litre to discern sourness, compared to their southern counterparts' average of 0.5g.

'What is most surprising is that the results are so clear and of such a high quality,' said Ms Allesen-Holm. 'The trends are very clear in all the answers from the many primary and secondary schools; the pupils and teachers have been very thorough and accurate.'

The findings have been published in a report that is available through the science festival's organiser, Danish Science Communication, a non-profit organisation whose goal is to increase public awareness and understanding of science and technology.

Source: Danish Science Communication; University of Copenhagen

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