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The New Science Behind Picky Eaters
By Vera Chan
April 14, 2014
|It’s one thing for your brother to hate green vegetables, your beloved to avoid dairy, or your best friend to swear off offerings from the entire country of India.|
But good luck cooking for a guest who turns his nose up at mangoes but not pineapples, picks out tomato slices from a burger, and mercilessly plucks at walnuts studding a brownie. It’s like you need a course in Bayesian statistics to figure out his contradictions.
Only, there just might be a pattern that scientists are only beginning to hone in on to explain picky eating: texture.
By now, most people know about the importance of smell (aroma) and the five basic tastes (sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, umami). Texture—or what the aspiring foodie understands as “mouthfeel”—is part of the holy trinity of flavor. Yet that third dimension may be the most under-appreciated and indefinable part of eating.
"We don’t separate texture from the act of eating," observes Barb Stuckey, author of "Taste: What You’re Missing.” “We think of it as a physical act, as if there were no sensory stimulation.”
But there’s a whole host of sensory reactions involved even before you sink your teeth in, among them the visual (assessing how crisp that tempura still is) and the aural (the crackle of a salty chip). When the food finally makes its way into your mouth and you break down those cellular walls (also known as chewing), captive flavors get released, which then warm up in your mouth and linger.
As a professional food taster and developer, Stuckey has pushed a lot of prototypes past people’s lips to get their feedback. Even when it comes to “extreme textural aversions, though, many have a hard time pinpointing and articulating what’s objectionable.” Yet while they may not appreciate texture when it’s there, they definitely notice when it’s not. (That’s why those substitute meal shakes, tasty as they may be, don’t quite satisfy.)
"When it comes to texture," Stuckey said, "we just don’t have a very good vocabulary about that."
Can’t Quite Put Our Finger On It
So why isn’t texture better understood? There’s actually an international standard, ISO 5492, that defines texture as—wait for it—”the mechanical, geometrical and surface attributes of a product perceptible by means of mechanical, tactile and, where appropriate, visual and auditory receptors.” Talk about a mouthful.
That standard wasn’t even set until 1992. Turns out the modern investigation into texture—or really, sensory research—didn’t start until after World War II. Before then, food researchers considered texture too personal to be measured scientifically. Minds changed, according to the textbook “Food Texture,” after the Army made “considerable investment in developing nutritious rations for its troops, only to find many of them did not appreciate what they were being offered.”
Still, of all the taste elements, texture remains the toughest nut to crack. Capturing that crowd-pleasing mouthfeel has been part of a billion-dollar food industry: Think of the French fry wars or the quixotic attempts at (delicious) nonfat ice cream. “Food companies have invested a lot in science to understand how to manipulate the texture of foods,” Institute of Food Technologists spokesperson Kantha Shelke wrote in an email. “After appearance and taste, it is the texture that brings people back to a food.” Findings, though, often remain hush-hush to maintain the competitive advantage.
Among academics, “there’s kind of a vicious cycle,” says Ivan de Araujo, who was among the first to track the appreciation of texture and taste to the brain’s insular cortex. Scientists preferred mapping out taste buds and olfactory receptors because of the body of work already done in these areas. “You don’t see as many researchers generally interested in texture as you see in taste and olfaction,” he said.
Still, de Araujo thinks that a map of how we experience texture might be available in the next five to 10 years. So just as we’ve embraced the “supertaster,” we might be able to identify—and understand—the “hypertexturalist.”
You Say ‘Tomato,’ I Say ‘No Thanks’In the meantime, surveys have been able to suss out patterns among picky eaters — and enemy number 1 is the raw tomato. The aggrieved tomato is damned as slimy, wet, and gelatinous. Fundamentally, it may symbolize what picky eaters hate: change.
"When you think about it, it has a lot of textural transition," explains Dr. Marcia Pelchat, a biopsychologist at the nonprofit Monell Chemical Senses Center. “You have the thin skin that can stick to your soft palate, you got the flesh that can be grainy, and you got the slimy stuff which is bad.” And just as they would turn away from a strawberry because of its nasty achene (those little dark specks), the tomato seeds get picky texturalists gagging. Picky eaters don’t want itsy-bitsy bits of nonsense interrupting a smooth eating experience.
Of course, that same “textural differential” — as Stuckey calls it —can be a food lover’s lustiest ambition. Unlike the picky eater who would never mix mashed potatoes with lumpy peas, an adventuresome eater can get giddy over the caviar-flavored gels that pop in the mouth like candy. Mixing textures isn’t just restricted to five-star dining experiences. In the junk food universe, the Oreo embodies a zenith of chocolatey crunch and the soft, yielding cream of sugars and shortening. “The ultimate in culinary nirvana,” Stuckey says, “is contrast.”
Spice and Everything Nice
Another point of contention among fussy texturalists: spiciness. Yes, spiciness is actually a texture. Remember ISO 5492, which included “tactile” in its definition? Touch in this case comes from the fibers surrounding your tastebuds, which belong to the trigeminal nerve—the same one that tells you something is hurting. Hot sauce, or a carbonated soda for that matter, will stimulate those open nerve endings.
"Our response to spiciness is a pain response," Stuckey explains. That’s why many of those so-called hyper-tasters—people who pack a lot of papillae on their tongue—don’t care for the hot stuff, as the stimuli can be overwhelming.
Texturalists on both sides of the spectrum may agree on one thing: the exquisite perfection of chocolate. “One of the most seductive qualities of good chocolate is that it melts precisely at human body temperature,” Stuckey writes in her book, “which provides a textural experience unlike any other food.”
Could picky texturalists have pronounced survival instincts? Truly slimy foods, after all, indicate spoilage.
There are studies suggesting that some food neophobia—the fear of trying new foods—might be genetically determined. Then again, studies also show even the most fastidious nibblers can get over their aversions through repeated exposure.
And even entire societies can change textural tastes: One 2000 paper claimed the “explosion of Oriental foods and restaurants” taught Americans to “consume firm, crisp cooked vegetables which in the past were expected to be soft and almost mushy.”
"Eastern, especially, Chinese and Japanese cultures have a more diverse vocabulary than Westerners to describe and appreciate different textures," Shelke agrees. They "take immense pleasure in eating fiddly, complicated foods"—to the point of soaking all the flavor out of something like sea cucumber just to appreciate its slippery cartiliginous texture.
"Globalization," she points out, "can open up the repertoire of textures." With the ability to have the world on a plate whether through restaurants or frozen foods, younger Americans may find themselves craving the rubbery, pasty, gooey—even a raw tomato.
Something, definitely, to chew on.
lemon bars with coconut
3/4 cup oats (or buckwheat groats if you want it gluten-free)
3/4 cup dates
3/4 cup coconut shreds
1/3 cup melted coconut oil
1/4 cup maple syrup (or 1 cup dates, but this will change the colour)
Juice from 3 lemons
1/2 cup coconut shreds
1 or 2 bananas
To make the base: pulse the oats or buckwheat groats and coconut shreds in your food processor until they become a rough flour. Add the dates and process until it all sticks together. Press into the bottom of a square baking pan and put in the fridge.
To make the lemon layer: blend all the ingredients until smooth. See if you like the taste and adjust accordingly. Spread evenly on to the base layer and set in the fridge overnight. The next day, cut into squares and sprinkle with finely ground coconut flakes for a powdered sugar effect. Nom!
makes about 12 bars
(and thank you to Laurie!)
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Before You Discipline Your Child
Make Sure Discipline Is What Your Child Really Needs
By Terri Mauro
About.com Children With Special Needs
You've had it up to here with your child's behavior -- but is it really misbehavior worthy of disciplinary action, or behavior related to your child's special needs that can be better addressed with understanding, support, and accommodations? Often, changing your actions and reactions will change your child's behavior for the better. Ask yourself these twelve important questions before you think about consequences.
1. Does my child understand what's being asked?
You may feel your wishes are obvious, and your child's lack of response means defiance. But if your child has problems with language, particularly with pragmatics like tone of voice, figures of speech, and body language, that message may not be as clear as you think. Make your requests straightforward and simple, free of things like sarcasm or wordplay, and make sure your child truly understands before you place blame for noncompliance.
2. Have I broken down the task enough?
Maybe you've asked your child to do something, and she's stopped right in the middle and wandered off. Before considering that a punishable offense, think about her ability to complete multi-step tasks. Have you proposed a job that's too big and complicated? Would your child cooperate if you broke it down further? Try making requests by the step and not by the completed task, and see if that increases compliance. It may also be helpful to teach your child tasks backward, so he always ends with an experience of success.
3. Does my child have trouble with transitions?
Many children with special needs have trouble transitioning from one activity to the next, and may need extra time to shift gears. Planning for transitions and giving your child plenty of warning can head off bad behavior -- and looking for hidden transitions when behavior flares up can suggest ways to restructure the situation.
4. Does my child have an executive function problem?
If you know your child has a disability that affects the "executive function" of the brain -- that is, the part of the brain that involves organization and control and foresight -- don't treat those problems as deliberate misbehavior. Your child can't keep track of things, control impulses, predict consequences of actions, or retain a useful memory of your disciplinary action for future reference. Instead, change the environment so that problems don't come up in the first place, provide lots of positive reinforcement when things are going well, and address misbehavior with a short, emotion-free time out.
5. Does my child really understand the difference between truth and lies?
Lying seems like a clear-cut offense, and it's a zero tolerance issue for many parents. But some children with special needs don't see as sharp a line between honesty and deception as we do. Poor memory, lack of cause-and-effect thinking, language impairments, and developmental delays may lead kids to say what's not so without malice. Discipline will not make a dent in the problem, so beware against forcing your child to lie and then punishing him for it. Instead, provide good supervision, so that you never have to take your child's word, and an understanding heart for fibs.
6. Is my child paying attention?
Kids who have problems with attention may miss messages about what they're supposed to do. And, though it seems contradictory, they may be able to fix attention so hard to one particular activity that they screen out everything else. If you know your child has issues with attention, make very certain that he or she is actively engaged with you when you give instructions. No fair yelling instructions from the other room, or speaking normally in a loud distracting environment, and then blaming your child for not following through.
7. Is this a battle that needs to be fought?
Some issues are just more important than others. The ones that affect the safety of your child and others have to be non-negotiable, but most everything else ought to be in play. How often do you draw the line based on your own preferences and convenience, not some true issue of right and wrong? Allow your child some wiggle room on those issues, and use it as an opportunity to teach the art of compromise. Otherwise, you're likely to get caught in a power struggle or ultimatum that will only make things worse.
8. Am I too emotional?
Never administer discipline when you're the one out of control. Children with special needs can show uncanny skill in pushing our buttons, and it's easy to get so revved up you go overboard with the consequences. Rather than roll everything back when you've calmed down, or force your child to endure a too-severe punishment just to keep consistent, excuse your overly emotional self and take a little time-out before dealing with your child's misbehavior. Keep in mind, too, that kids with special needs may overreact to stress in your environment -- so if you're not staying calm, you're a co-conspirator in that tantrum.
9. Do I have reasonable expectations?
You wouldn't punish a vision-impaired child for not seeing something, or a hearing-impaired child for not listening when you speak. So don't make a punishable offense out of something you know your child can't do, or ought to know. Consider your child's communication impairments, attention problems, developmental delays, sensory sensitivities, behavioral challenges, and other special needs before formulating your expectations, and when misbehavior seems stubborn, consider whether it could be disability-related. And when you knowingly put your child through something you know she can't handle -- like an overlong mall trip or a meal at a noisy restaurant, blame yourself for that public meltdown, 'cause you knew better.
10. Does my child need more time?
Counting to three is a staple of behavior management, but for kids with transition issues, it may not be enough time to stop one activity and start another. Instead of making it three and out, try a little longer count for your child. If your child ignores that, you may still have to administer that consequence; but in our house, a oount of ten gets my son moving the way three never did.
11. Would a bribe work better?
Positive consequences often go farther than negative ones in motivating good behavior from difficult kids -- and if nothing else, they should be as much a part of your parenting toolkit. If you're on the verge of disciplining your child, consider whether you could turn the behavior around with the right incentive, leaving both you and your child with an experience of success.
12. Do I spend as much time praising as I do disciplining?
What does it take for your child to get your full and passionate attention? If the answer is, "act up," you're going to see a lot of that. Try engaging your child with positive comments and praise more than negative comments and criticism. It may be too late to head off bad behavior this time around, but try to find something good to say to or do with your child within the next half-hour. And again. And again.
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Getting Your Kids Off the iPad Is Worth the Fight
By Beth Greenfield, Shine Staff | Parenting
Apr 1, 2014
Any parent who knows the particular hell of child tantrums in response to a set of screen-time rules may eventually begin to wonder: Is it really worth the fight? But a new study wants to assure you that yes, it really is. So stand your ground, moms and dads. The research, published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, found that parents who set limits can count on some seriously positive results for their kids — including improved sleep, better grades, less aggressive behavior, and lower risk of obesity.
“Parents often feel out of control when it comes to screen time — like they’re either taking a shot in the dark or should just give up,” lead researcher Douglas Gentile, a developmental psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State, tells Yahoo Shine. “But what this study shows is that even that shot in the dark is really powerful. Parents have a much more of a profound effect on their child’s wellbeing than they realize.”
For the study, researchers analyzed the media habits of more than 1,300 Iowa and Minnesota schoolchildren already participating in an obesity-prevention program. They collected data from students, parents, teachers, and nurses on topics including screen-time limits, exposure to violent media, bedtimes, behavior, grades, and height and weights data — first at the start of the study and then again seven months later. “What we saw was this kind of ripple effect,” Gentile says, explaining that limits on screen time — specifically, watching shows or movies in any form, and playing video games — improved kids’ sleep, academics, pro-social behavior, and even body mass index. That seven months wound up being a sufficient amount of time to see differences between kids who had screen-time limits and those who did not was a happy surprise to researchers, particularly since the effects were small.
“It was long enough for us to see the effect and also long enough for parents not to notice it,” Gentile explains, which is why moms and dads can be quick to dismiss the importance of monitoring screen time. “As parents, we don’t even see our children get taller and that’s a really noticeable effect. With media, what we’re often looking for is the absence of a problem, such as a child not gaining weight, making it even more difficult to notice,” Gentile says. But even tiny controls can make an impact, considering that children spend an average of 40-plus hours a week in front of a screen — not even counting time spent on their school computers. Also, according to a recent Common Sense Media study, 72 percent of children under 8 have used a mobile device — while 38 percent of children under 2 have used one — signaling a dramatic uptick since the group's last such study, in 2012.
Other recent studies have yielded similar findings regarding links between excessive screen time and obesity, sleep, and aggression — but not necessarily all in one fell swoop. The new research also jibes with the recently revised guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which suggest less than two hours of passive screen time daily for all kids and teens and no screen time for kids younger than 2 (though, recently a doctor has suggested that active, rather than passive, screen time for kids under 2 might actually be beneficial).
Some tips for parents needing advice on how, exactly, to set limits, include:
•Control the content. Let your child watch a DVD that you’re familiar with, for example, rather than something on TV or the computer. “That way, you’re not surprised by the content, and you know exactly how much time they’ll be watching for,” Gentile says.
•Model good behavior. "When kids are around, set an example by using media the way you want them to use it," suggests Common Sense Media's vice president of research, Seeta Pai. "If we’re on our phones at dinner, why will our kids listen to us when we tell them to turn theirs off?"
•Set up an allowance or token economy system. Allot, say, 10 hours of screen time a week, and let your kids spend it whenever they want. Maybe they’ll use it in small increments, or maybe they’ll save up a binge for the weekend — but either way, they won’t want to waste it. “It helps them learn to manage their screen time, just like with a monetary allowance,” Gentile explains. “Plus it gives them some control and takes the fight away from the parent.”