Science - August 31, 2009

Children’s faces show food tastes bad

You can tell from children’s facial expressions when they don’t like what they’re eating. This is quite clear from an analysis of video footage of children eating. But you can't tell from the images whether they really like the food or are just neutral.

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These conclusions were drawn by researcher Gertrude Zeinstra after presenting children aged between five and thirteen with difference juices. Her results will be published in the next edition of Food Quality and Preference.
 
Zeinstra video-recorded the children’s faces while they tasted the juices. Using the ‘Facial Action Coding System’, muscular changes were observed and recorded. Earlier research had suggested that particularly the eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, lips and chin betrayed responses to tastes. Zeinstra and nutrition student Denisse Colindres determined how the children liked the juices by studying the images, and compared these results with what the children themselves had said.
 
It turned out Zeinstra had successfully identified the ‘nasty’ juices using the images. ‘If children turn their heads away, it often means they don’t like it. Lips together and eyebrows lowered indicate an unpleasant taste. These are natural reactions that people can’t usually control.’ But whether the children really liked the juices or were neutral could not be established from the images.
 
Zeinstra stresses that the research only studied six children with the aim of testing the method. Further research with more subjects should reveal whether the distinction between tasty, acceptable and unpleasant can really be seen from facial expressions. It is precisely the small differences and subtle changes in the experience of tastes that interests scientists and companies.
 
It seems logical from a biological and evolutionary point of view that disgust is expressed more clearly than enjoyment. ‘It’s more important to show that food is nasty than to show that it tastes good’, says Zeinstra. ‘An unpleasant taste, often a bitter one, can mean poisonous substances – and it's important for others to know about that too.' / AS

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