Some food preferences are innate and largely universal (e.g., desire for highly-caloric food sources) whereas others are learned. In today's post, I'd like to briefly discuss food learning that occurs via two forms of biological transmission: (1) Can a child develop particular food preferences as a result of having been exposed to the corresponding flavors in utero? (2) Can a child develop particular food preferences as a result of having been exposed to the corresponding flavors via breastfeeding? These are telling examples of how nurture operates via nature. On a related note, see my inaugural post here wherein I discussed the fact that consumers are both born and made, and a more recent post where I addressed how a mother's preconception diet might affect the sex of her child (see here).
Julie Mennella has been one of the leading scientists in tackling these two questions (see some of her papers here, here, here, and here). She has shown that food preferences are indeed learned both prenatally (transmission through the amniotic fluid) and postnatally (transmission through a mother's milk). Interestingly, economists and consumer scholars alike seldom bother to explore how we form our preferences. Somehow, these manifest themselves via our consumer choices yet little attention is paid to why one consumer might love carrot juice whereas another might display a strong aversion to it. Economists would simply offer some unfalsifiable story about carrot juice "maximizing utility" for one but not the other. Understanding the genesis of our preferences, whether these are innate or learned ontogenetically, is a central element to possessing an accurate grand theory of consumer behavior.
Mothers: If you would like your children to love broccoli, eat some during your pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Hopefully, these early lessons on healthy eating will yield food preferences in your children that will see them live to a ripe old age.
I discuss this issue and many other food-related phenomena in my forthcoming trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature (Prometheus Books, 2011). The book's cover is finally out! I hope that you like it.
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