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Family upbringing has no impact on adolescents’ food preferences

Have you ever sat down for a meal with a large group of friends or family members and noticed how different everybody’s food preferences tend to be? Some people might absolutely hate broccoli, whilst others absolutely love it. Differences in taste preferences are partially explained by evolutionary biology. For instance, humans generally like sweet tastes as these indicate safe sources of energy, whereas bitterness might be seen as a sign of potentially toxic substances. However, there is much more variability to our food preferences today than these simple universal preferences. Cultural background, meals eaten at home or out with friends, as well as the variety of foods on offer in shops are all examples of environmental factors that act together to shape inter-individual food preferences over time. One thing is certain: food preferences strongly influence what we chose to eat, affecting our health in the short- and long-term. 

To understand where these individual differences come from, a recent study collected food preference scores of 62 common foods from 2,685 TEDS twins. The study estimated how much of the variation in food preferences of the twins could be explained by underlying genetic factors (commonly referred to as heritability), and how much of this variation could be explained by environmental influences. Food preferences were moderately heritable highlighting that genetic differences between individuals played an important role in shaping food preferences. The other significant influence on food preferences was the ‘unique environment’ - aspects of the environment that are not shared by both twins in a pair (e.g. experiences unique to each twin, such as having different friends). 

Effects of family upbringing on adolescents’ food preferences seem to disappear as they start to make their own meal choices, to the point where they have no detectable impact by the time they turn 18-19 years of age. The results from this research suggest that efforts to improve adolescent nutrition may be best targeted at the wider environment rather than the home, with strategies focused on increasing the availability and lowering the cost of ‘healthier foods’. 

Read more about this study