Three key responses behind food neophobia, the rejection of new foods in both adults and children

Yuk! That short expressive word, the trademark of the fussy eater, is dreaded by thousands of parents.

Yet picky eating, and in particular mistrust of new sorts of foods, is not confined to children.

According to Dr Yolanda Martins of the School of Psychology at Flinders University, South Australia, there are three key responses behind food neophobia - the rejection of new foods - in both adults and children.

"There is distaste, a dislike of the food's taste or smell; there is danger, the idea that eating the food will physically endanger you; and then there is disgust," she said.

Dr Martins' current research project is examining food neophobia in adults in a bid to develop techniques to reduce it. Her research is using university student volunteers to identify and evaluate responses to a range of familiar and less familiar foods prepared in her kitchen-laboratory.

Dr Martins said that distaste traditionally has been regarded as the chief reason behind food neophobia.

"What I have found in my research, which seems to be converging with other research overseas, is that disgust is playing a significant role in the rejection of food, and that what seems to be underlying the disgust response are perceptions of the food's texture," she said.

Disgust poses a major problem in reducing food neophobia: while it is usually possible to persuade adults and even children to try food they initially reject on the basis of distaste or danger, it is very difficult to find successful strategies to overcome disgust, Dr Martins said.

"When people have a problem with texture, or at least their perception of texture, it is much more resistant to change," she said.

This may be because disgust is a basic or core emotion, Dr Martins said. Disgust is universally accompanied by a facial expression in which tongue pokes out in a mimic of retching, and a behavioural response of distancing oneself from the offending substance.

"From an evolutionary standpoint, if you ate something that might be bad for you, it would have evoked the disgust response, which would have caused the food to fall out of your mouth so you wouldn't ingest this toxic or dangerous thing," Dr Martins said.

In later life, disgust acquires a cognitive aspect, so that the basic emotional and physiological response develops a moral dimension, reflected in revulsion towards acts such as incest or violence.

"It is a very strong emotion," Dr Martins said.

Disgust towards food also can be bound by cultural factors, but these are learned rather than intrinsic. Dr Martins said researchers in the field formerly believed that food derived from animals was more likely to produce disgust, but the idea no longer holds sway.

"We now have evidence that disgust can be exhibited to non-animal foods just as strongly," she said

"Basically what we're seeing is rejection of the thought of eating a food on the basis of what it is, where it comes from, or its social history."

And with the "what it is" aspect, it seems texture is almost entirely to blame. "Overwhelmingly, when you pin people down about what they dislike about the food, they come up with a negative textural sensory property - they think it's slimy or it's gelatinous, it's got a mouth feel they don't like," Dr Martins said.

"Tomatoes, mushrooms and onions are the three most rejected non-animal foods in children.

"And it's something that is really hard to change in adults, and really hard to change in kids."

Dr Martins said parental concern over picky eating in their children was frequently unnecessary.

"It could well be a developmental phase like any other, and in the end children will eat when they get hungry."

Dr Martins said little research on food rejection had been undertaken in Australia.

"I am aiming to see if the factors that underlie disgust are similar to those in other parts of the world - I have no reason to believe they won't be, but you have to be sure," she said.

"If the studies show the problem to be textural, texture will become the target, and we will see if exposing people to varying textures can help them overcome these reactions."


  1. Kiersten Schilinski Kiersten Schilinski United States says:

    I'd like to use these as a source for a research paper I am writing this semester. Was there a specific author that I could site for this? Thank you.

  2. Tommy Tommy Ireland says:

    You've just described exactly what I am going through. I am 23 years old and won't eat some foods because I think I won't like them. I don't eat any meat, veg or bread. I haven't even tried most of these but i'm afraid I won't like them. I even like the smell of some foods but i'm afraid to try them. For example I love the smell of pizza but i'm afraid to taste it. I would love to eat normally because it has a really tough impact on my social life

  3. Ian Newbury Ian Newbury United States says:

    I have the same need as Kiersten. I need to cite this source for my paper and would like to know the author.  Thank you.

  4. Editors Editors United States says:

    Here you go
    Previous research has demonstrated that individuals' beliefs about the disgusting properties of foods play a central role in predicting willingness to eat novel foods of either animal or nonanimal origin (Martins & Pliner, in press). The present study aimed to identify what characteristics of foods make individuals perceive them as disgusting. In this study, participants read a set of scenarios designed to depict potentially disgusting foods; participants in Sample 1 rated the perceived disgustingness of the foods while participants in Sample 2 rated the foods on a variety of attributes relevant to theoretical conceptions of disgust. Multidimensional scaling revealed two dimensions, aversive textural properties of the foods and reminders of livingness/animalness, that accounted for most of the variability in ratings of perceived disgustingness of the foods depicted in the scenarios. Implications for our current conceptualization of disgust are examined.

  5. Courtney Courtney United States says:

    I'm glad to hear that there is actually something to explain why I am the way I am and that there's people like me. Like Tommy said I love the smell of some food but I would never try them.

  6. T. Evans T. Evans Canada says:

    Finally, I can put a label on my "illness". I am 58 and have very, very limited diet. I eat nearly no vegetables and no fresh fruit. I have not even tried most things but feel like I am going to be sick if I do try it. Life has been difficult in that I try to avoid going to anyone's house for dinner. I would like to visit friends in other places and stay with them but am too embarassed about my food habits. If served something I "don't like", I would not force myself to eat it and that would be rude to the host. Is there any therapy for this? Funnily enough my blood tests are very good. I do take several supplements so I guess that helps.    

  7. Katrina Katrina United Kingdom says:

    I had no idea there was a name for 'fussy eating' Although it should never be called this as it makes it sound trivial. I believe it is very serious and effects peoples lives in a very negative way. I cope by using the safe food senario, avoiding eating out even at a family dinner. I never thought I was anything else but a fussy eater, until my grandson starting showing the symptoms. I now realise that my son may also have the same. Is this learned behaviour?

    • Gwen Gwen United States says:

      I saw this on tonight 11/4/11.  I wanted to run and tell them, there is an answer, finally a name.  I have two sons, both are what my husband and myself have always called very picky eaters.  When my first born son wouldn't eat baby food, we turned to professionals that basically said he had an aversion to food.  My second son also came with a picky eater tag.  The reason I'm writing is to say they were both BORN THAT WAY.  The oldest was born with disgust of creamy texture but has now at age 13 seems to have a fear of trying anything new.  My youngest at age 11 lives on Ramen noodles.  Neither eats vegetables, won't even allow a vegetable on their plate.  They say they like fruit but it's more like the idea of liking fruit because they don't consume it, always left on the dish.  Anyway this mom is thankful for a name and concern for the condition, hopefully there will be some treatment in the near future.  Thankful to know my children were born this way and it wasn't me as a failure during feeding.    

  8. Heida S Heida S Iceland says:

    Finally I´m reading something I can relate to, I thought I was the only one! I´ve been like this since I was born, I didn´t want to be breastfed even. I´m 33 and this is so tiring and it has so much effect on my mental health. For me it´s mostly the texture and smell, I get disgusted and feel I´m gonna be sick, I can not eat anything unexpected in a meal like a stew for example. I lose my appetite very lightly. I really wish there was a cure for this.

  9. Karen Hobgood Karen Hobgood United States says:

    I have a 12 year old son who is like this. He ate everything as a baby but once he started eating table food, he's been this way. There are only a few things he will eat. Others I know he would like if he'd just try them. He can't help me understand it, I don't think he understands it himself. It effects planning family meals and restaurant selections. It's so nerve wrecking as a mother and he's tired of eating the same few foods over and over again. Is there any hope of overcoming this?

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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