When young children learn to eat a wide variety of textures

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Enfant mangeant un yaourt.. © INRA, MAITRE Christophe
Enfant mangeant un yaourt.. © INRA, MAITRE Christophe

How do young children aged between 6 and 18 months learn to eat different textures’ Which textures do they accept as a function of their age? For the first time in France, INRA scientists working in collaboration with Blédina have studied these questions1. They showed that children accepted small quantities of most textures at an earlier age than their parents usually propose them at home. Published in Food Quality and Preference, these findings suggest certain recommendations relative to food diversification.

During the early months of life, the nutrition of infants is assured by breast milk or baby formula. At around 4-6 months, the diet evolves towards introducing a more varied solid diet (fruits, vegetables, cereals, meat/fish/eggs and dairy products other than milk). These foods are initially proposed to children in a puréed form, so that they can discover different flavours. As the months pass, these purées are gradually replaced by small and soft pieces and then larger, harder, stickier or fibrous pieces, which enable the children to learn to eat food at the family table. However public health guidelines on this subject are limited at present and few scientific data have been generated. At a European level, the Nutrition Committee of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) issued an opinion in 2017 which encouraged the introduction of pieces2. Observational studies have indeed suggested that if pieces are introduced too late, this may be associated with a refusal of foods at 18 months and a lower consumption of fruits and vegetable at the age of 7 years.

In this context, and for the first time in France, INRA scientists, working in collaboration with the company Blédina, conducted a longitudinal study on young children between 2015 and 2017 in order to better understand how they learn to eat varied textures, and which textures were accepted as a function of their age. To achieve this, the scientists followed two groups of children over several months, in their laboratory. The first group of 24 infants started the study at 6 months and were seen again at 8 and 10 months. The second group of 25 infants were also seen again at 12, 15 and 18 months. Depending on their ages, the scientists offered the infants three spoonfuls (smooth or granular, small pieces of cooked or raw vegetables, small pieces of meat, pasta, muesli, sticky pieces of banana or brie cheese and ready-made commercial infant foods) or one piece (bread and biscuit) of foods with very varied textures at an age when their parents often might not yet proposed them at home. For each food, the scientists assessed whether the child ate the food (by sucking or chewing it) and if he or she accepted the food (was able to swallow it). On their side, the parents determined whether their children did or did not like the food.

The results showed that granular purées, with or without small pieces, were very well accepted as from 6 months, and that the infants ate them by sucking. Between 6 and 10 months, the children gradually learned to chew which enabled them to better accept soft or sticky pieces and bread. However, at 10 months, fewer than 50% of the infants were capable of eating a crust of bread or a biscuit for infants within the time allotted (one minute), and it was only at 15 months that all the children accepted these foods. Between 12 and 18 months, the infants were chewing all foods and their sucking behaviour had almost disappeared. This is a period for development of the acceptability of pieces of raw vegetables and small pasta, but these foods were only accepted by at least 50% of the infants at 15 months, and some infants still could not manage to eat them at 18 months. For the parents, their children liked a food as soon as they were able to eat it, except for bread and biscuits which were deemed to be appreciated even if the infants found it difficult to swallow them.

These data thus reveal that the infants accepted small quantities of most of the textures proposed to them, at an age that was generally earlier than when their parents offered them at home. The acceptability of hard pieces and raw vegetables increased gradually between 6 and 18 months, in parallel with the emergence of chewing abilities. This means it is possible to envisage new guidelines on food diversification to inform parents.

1This work was carried out in the context of Lauriane Demonteil’s PhD project’.
2 M. Fewtrell, J. Bronsky, C. Campoy, M. Domellöf, N. Embleton, N. Fidler Mis, C. Molgaard Complementary Feeding: A Position Paper by the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) Committee on Nutrition Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 64 (1) (2017), pp. 119-132.