Foundation for Salty Diet May Be Laid in Infancy
Credit: French fries via Shutterstock

Our preference for salty foods may be determined by the foods we eat as infants, a new study suggests.

Infants in the study whose mothers fed them salty food when they were 6-months old were more likely to prefer the taste of salt than infants who were not fed salty foods, the researchers said.

This penchant for salt appeared to last into early childhood.

The findings suggest early exposure to salt may make a child more likely to prefer, and consequently consume, high-salt foods throughout their lives, according to the researchers.

But the study showed only a correlation, and not a direct cause-effect link, the researchers noted, and more work is needed to determine whether infants who are exposed to salt do in fact go on to eat more salt as adults, and whether they develop health problems associated with salt consumption, such as high blood pressure.

A salty diet

The researchers tested the preference for salt in 61 infants when they were 2-months and 6-months old. The babies were given a bottle containing salty water, and the researchers measured how much they drank in one minute.

Mothers of the infants also reported whether they had fed their babies starchy foods. While the researchers did not ask what types of foods the babies were given, starchy foods commonly fed to babies (such as Cheerios, mashed potatoes and waffles) contribute substantially to the amount of salt in their diets.

None of the infants liked the salt water when they were 2-months old. But at six months, the infants who had been exposed to starchy foods consumed 55 percent more salt than those who hadn't eaten starchy foods.

The researchers continued to track 26 of the infants until they were preschool age. Children who had been exposed to starchy foods as infants were more likely to lick salt from the surface of food when they were preschoolers compared with children who didn't eat starchy foods as infants.

However, children exposed to starchy food as infants did not actually prefer salty foods, such as pizza and French fries, more than children who were not exposed to starchy foods as infants, the researchers said.

Tasting salt

More work is needed to determine exactly how humans develop a liking for salt. Babies are born with a taste for sweet foods, and their taste for salt develops later, the researchers said. It's not clear whether this occurs as the biological mechanisms that detect salt develop, or whether infants simply grow to accept the taste of salt.

The study was published online Dec. 20 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Pass it on: Feeding babies salty foods may boost their preference for salt later in life.

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