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Los Angeles • Feeding young babies solid foods such as crackers, cereals and bread, which tend to be high in salt, may set them up for a lifelong preference for salt, researchers reported Tuesday.

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that efforts to reduce salt intake among Americans should begin very early in life.

It is even possible, the authors said, that infancy contains a "sensitivity window" in which exposure to certain foods and tastes programs the brain to desire them in the future.

Americans' fondness for salt, a source of dismay for health experts, is well known. A 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that average intake of 3,436 milligrams a day for Americans over age 2 is more than double what is recommended and that new government standards are needed to reduce the salt content in processed and restaurant food.

But little is known about the biology behind our love affair with salt. Researchers don't even know what receptors are involved in tasting it. And though babies are born with a clear preference for sweet foods and an absolute distaste for bitter foods, they appear indifferent to salt in the first few months of life, said Leslie Stein, the lead author of the study and a senior research associate at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

"It's absolutely possible that exposure early on in life could change the way the salt taste signal is transmitted to the brain," said James F. Battey Jr., director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, which funded the study. "The brain is very plastic at that time of life."

The study doesn't prove this, however — it merely shows a correlation between early exposure and a taste for salt later on, Battey added. But if it turns out to be true, "then parents have a way of reducing the risk," he said.

Studies have also shown that babies are learning about the flavors in Mom's diet even before birth, in the uterus, as well as afterward through the taste of their mother's breast milk, Stein said.

"This very early exposure helps them learn to like those flavors as well."

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