Image: Gloria Cabada-Leman/Flickr

The battle for children’s taste buds is old news now, but I’ll recap it for you. Kids like sugar. Companies know this. They put sugar in everything, even supposedly healthy breakfast cereals. They put games and cartoons on the boxes. Now we’re left with lots of obese kids, some of whom have never eaten a dang blueberry.

But how to fix the problem? Do companies try to make fruit sweeter, or do legislators try to keep sugar out of kids’ foods?

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One team at the Monell Chemical Senses center in Pennsylvania has been working on trying to understand this battle. Their first results seem so show that sweeter fruit might be the way to get kids to actually want to eat fruits. The key is the child’s “bliss point.”

“We see it for a lot of sugars, that children have a higher bliss point than adults,” study author Julie Mennella told Gizmodo. “Whether it’s non nutritive sweeteners, fructose or sucrose.” Bliss point is exactly what it sounds like: The preferred amount of an ingredient for the best flavor. Mennella’s work has shown that kids’ bliss points are higher than adults’ for things like sugar and salt.

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Her new study, published recently in the Journal of Food Science, looks at the same bliss point idea, but in fruits, rather than in sugar or in candy. Unsurprisingly, kids prefer the sweet stuff.

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The team tested this first by feeding three kinds of blueberries to a group of children and adults. Everyone preferred the Keecrisp blueberry, which was sweetest by far. Each group then tested solutions with different fructose concentrations, and the kids preferred sweeter mixtures at a level unlikely to have been caused by chance alone. But then the groups came in to try a second harvest, where a different blueberry, the Arcadia blueberry, was only slightly sweeter. This time around, most of the kids preferred this berry, while the adults didn’t have much of a preference.

Again, this might not seem new—we already knew it was true for sucrose, or table sugar. But the bliss point for fructose is important information to have on hand to help researchers get kids to eat more fruits, said Mennella. “We have to learn how we can reteach the children’s palette,” she said.

Why are kids more sensitive to sugar, and why do they like it more? Mennella thought it could simply be evolutionary. Maybe younger people prefer high-energy sweet fruits during the years they grow the most. The preference for sweetness could have been designed specifically for things like fruit or mother’s milk. “But now we have a mismatch in the environment, she said. “We have lots of foods that are sweet and cheap but aren’t necessarily the best foods for the child.”

I asked Michael Moss, bestselling author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us what he thought of the work. “I think this is a hugely important study,” he said. But it made him wonder whether the best solution is really to raise the sugar content of fruit so kids prefer it, or to get every other company to reduce the amount of added sugar in their food. Mennella’s study seems to be making a case for the former.

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Yet childhood obesity is a hugely complex issue. We don’t know much about whether fructose has negative effects, said Moss, and he didn’t know where raising sugar levels in fruits would get us in the long run. Parents have been told to limit young kids’ fruit juice intake, since it’s been stripped of lots of its good nutrients or has added sugar. But low intake of fruit seems to be correlated with an increase in noncommunicable disease. Then there’s the matter of access—kids might not have fresh fruits and vegetables available. Ten percent of the kids and adults in the study said they’d never tasted a fresh blueberry before.

So, no one really cares how you eat. But if you have a kid, it could be time to think about introducing them to the blueberry. “I think the most important thing is how do we get children off to a healthy start,” said Mennella.

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[Journal of Food Science]