Kids and Spicy Food
May 12, 2006 11:50 AM   Subscribe

Why do kids dislike spicy food and is this culturally specific? What about Mexican/Thai/Indian/etc kids who can't avoid it?
posted by arcticwoman to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've known Korean toddlers that go to town on the Kimchee.
posted by sourwookie at 11:56 AM on May 12, 2006

It's my understanding that flavours/spices are transferred in part through breastmilk, and as such kids are acclimatized to the native flavours of their homeland during infancy.

Also, infants and children have far more sensitive tastebuds, and are more likely to react to a strong flavour.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 11:56 AM on May 12, 2006

As one of the primary purposes of spice is preservative, I think the answer is "Either learn to like it or starve."
posted by ChasFile at 11:57 AM on May 12, 2006

In Mexico, at least, hard candies coated in chili powder is very popular. I think that people are able to tolerate stronger flavors/tastes as they get older. In cultures where pungency or spiciness isn't truly ubiquitous (US, many European countries, etc.), it really is an acquired taste.
posted by penchant at 11:58 AM on May 12, 2006

(jeez, sorry, my post reads terribly...)
posted by penchant at 11:59 AM on May 12, 2006

I think a kid's tongue is pristine and therefore more taste sensitive than adults. Strong flavors might be unpleasant to them. At least, that's how I remember it.

As an adult, and perhaps from repeated scaldings with hot liquids, my tongue has become less sensitive. And therefore I no longer mind strong flavors like onions. And I've come to enjoy spicy foods maybe at a medium heat level.
posted by CrazyJoel at 12:00 PM on May 12, 2006

My Canadian toddler likes tacos, burritos, Thai food, samosas, Indian curry, Japanese curry, etc. I think it's a matter of having the foods during breastfeeding and early toddlerhood. But MMMV as time goes on!
posted by acoutu at 12:08 PM on May 12, 2006

Growing up in Mexico, pretty much any snack (even fruit salad) included optional chili powder. And kids would go to town on it. So I dont think its universal.
posted by vacapinta at 12:10 PM on May 12, 2006

(It may be worth thinking about how much American kids love those incredibly sour candies. True, kids have more sensitive taste buds. But they also don't have sex, drugs, or skydiving — and strong flavors are a big rush.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:14 PM on May 12, 2006

Best answer: From the New York Times magazine: Generation Pad Thai
The same parents who micromanage every other aspect of their children's lives - puzzle tutoring for 4-year-olds, clarinet lessons, baby yoga - seem to stop the mini-me'ing at the lunch box. The evidence surrounds us. Syrupy shots of glucose masquerading as yogurt. Premade peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches...

I polled several chefs with young children to see what they fed them and found serious challenges to the notion that small people simply will not brook fresh vegetables, texture or spice. They serve their children pad Thai, which blends pungent seasonings like fish sauce and tamarind with noodles, eggs and peanuts.
posted by mbrubeck at 12:16 PM on May 12, 2006

Kids in Ghana don't dislike spicy food. I know kids as young as 2 that eat habanero based sauces without batting an eyelid... so i second the notion that it's not universal.
posted by ramix at 12:18 PM on May 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

NPR reports that Spicy Hot Cheetos have become so popular with schoolkids, that school officials are threatening to ban it
posted by jaimev at 12:22 PM on May 12, 2006

Best answer: What Toddlers Eat Around the World.
posted by Brian James at 12:31 PM on May 12, 2006

I remember as a child being served pizza in Washington DC that was so spicy I could barely eat it. And I was bottlefed as an infant (evaporated milk, karo syrup and water.)

Now I love, love, love anything spicy.
posted by konolia at 12:44 PM on May 12, 2006

Kids in Sri Lanka don't dislike spicy food either. I'm guessing there are huge chunks of the world where children eat spicy food.
posted by chunking express at 1:05 PM on May 12, 2006

My mum is suffering because my little niece who lives with her won't touch spice. So my mum has no variety in her food.

This was a great fear of mine for the future - I couldn't live without spice. It's bad enough my husband won't touch tomatos and only will eat onions when minced. I couldn't give up my cayenne or tobasco too.

So, do people find it works to just eat lots of spice while breastfeeding and to give them spicy food as babies? How about a bit of chilli in their hot chocolate?

yes, the last was a bit facetious. I might try it later for myself, though.
posted by jb at 1:17 PM on May 12, 2006

Don't knock the spicy chocolate, I'm currently addicted to the Spicy Maya.

Also, to be relevant to the thread, one of the first solid foods I ate as a toddler was kimchee washed out in some water. I quickly progressed to full strength. :)
posted by like_neon at 1:26 PM on May 12, 2006

We are born with a large number of taste buds. As we get older, our taste buds die -- partially because of age, partially because we've eaten spicy foods. The more taste buds we've killed, the more we can tolerate strong flavors. Thus, children tend to prefer food that tastes bland to adults but plenty flavorful to them. Children who eat spicy foods at a young age kill their taste buds early so can tolerate increasingly spicy food.
posted by equipoise at 1:40 PM on May 12, 2006

When I was a kid, if my siblings and I got into physical fights, my mother would dip a toothpick in Tabasco sauce, line us up, and put the Tabasco on our tongues. I would scream and cry and generally carry on "It burns! Child abuse!" type of thing. For years after this, I could barely look at a Tabasco bottle. When I finally tried it as an adult, I thought "What was the big fucking deal?"

I think it was a combination of my tongue being more sensitive as a child, and also the psychological aspect of being afraid of punishment (I also do seem to still have a fairly sensitive tongue in that I can't drink really hot drinks without burning my tongue that other people have no problems drinking) But I've noticed that the more often I eat spicy food, the more I can tolerate.
posted by witchstone at 1:50 PM on May 12, 2006

Best answer: I read recently (sorry, no link) that infants are programmed (evolutionarily) to eat pretty much whatever they are offered when they are not old enough to walk; once they get to the age where they start walking, they're much more discriminating (as in, they don't like unfamiliar things).

The suggested reason (in the article) was that a young, mobile infant who is eats just about anything is likely to eat something that is poison; avoiding strange foods is a good survival strategy.
posted by WestCoaster at 2:57 PM on May 12, 2006

I would eat all kinds of spicy foods as a kid... jalapenos, hot-wings, tabasco, whatever.

I did grow up in Texas though.
posted by Espoo2 at 3:07 PM on May 12, 2006

equipoise's theory is something I suspected growing up - it seemed to me (as a child) that the more spicy food adults had, the less they seemed to be able to taste food that wasn't spicy. (I have no idea if such a thing has been confirmed)

So I decided to avoid spicy food (and still do). Now, 20 years later, spicy food is still painful to eat, which I take as a good sign, other foods taste wonderful, as always, but obviously, the "price" is not being interested in a range of foods that some people enjoy.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:28 PM on May 12, 2006

I've eaten "spicy" foods my whole life (okay, as far back as I can remember) and never had any problem. The first candy I ate when I was a kid was "Atomic Fireballs", which were not that hot, but had some neighbourhood kids hopping up and down and screaming for water. As far as I know, my mother didn't pass me any particularly spicy breast milk, so I'd imagine it's mostly cultural.

Perhaps as someone said above I just blew out my taste buds at an early age. People go on and on about Italian food, for example, but I can't really taste much to get excited about- "where are the spices?" I asked. (I'm referring to Italian food served in Italy, where spices are generally considered repulsive, in my experience) "No need," I was told- "These Italian sun-kissed tomatoes are perfection on thier own. We Italians cannot bear to ruin them with spices."

Well, 'till then, you'll find me at the veg samosa counter.
posted by baklavabaklava at 3:38 PM on May 12, 2006

While it is true that the number of taste buds on one's tongue may decline with age*, it's not true that spicy food "kills" them.* Taste buds actually regenerate on a regular basis, even after injury. It's thought that this process of regeneration slows down after age fifty or thereabouts, and is one of the possible causes of loss of the sense of taste in older people.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:03 PM on May 12, 2006

Best answer: This study indicates that flavors are also carried in amniotic fluid. "Prenatal and early postnatal exposures to a flavor enhanced the infants' enjoyment of that flavor in solid foods during weaning. These very early flavor experiences may provide the foundation for cultural and ethnic differences in cuisine."
posted by slightlybewildered at 4:48 PM on May 12, 2006

There's a human reaction to the chemical capsaicin where for about 3 days after eating some, we have increased immunity to it. If you eat something spicy, for three days afterwards spicy foods won't taste as spicy as they did as if you'd eaten porridge for a week. I don't know if this reaction builds up over time or how long the effects can last, but it might be part of why people who are used to eating spicy food don't mind it.
posted by Juliet Banana at 4:52 PM on May 12, 2006

Ok, all this breastmilk and amniotic fluid talk is worrying me a bit. Does this mean that because my fiance is a picky eater, if and when we have kids they are going to be picky eaters too? Other than through breastmilk, how else could I train my infants to like strong flavors? Spike their formula/baby food with tobasco?
posted by rorycberger at 4:59 PM on May 12, 2006

In Russia (at least the Kaluga region where I am) the idea of "hot" is even milder than in the Midwestern US I call home. Most people here can't stand hot food. Seems a cultural thing, as it is possible to buy hot chili powder and the like.

Most hot food available here is not Russian- there is a wonderful carrot and garlic salad that's extremely hot, but it's Korean.

After eating it here, I'd *love* to try the "real" Korean version; I'd wager it's a blazing-hot spicy heaven.
posted by fake at 10:35 PM on May 12, 2006

You ever see a little kid fall over, hit his head and not get doted on? More often than not, the kid that is trusted to deal with it on his own is able to do just that. Their head stops hurting after a second and they're off again, jolly as before.

So my pop psychologist armchair analysis is that kids are freaked out by spicy foods because parents tend to freak out first. I work at a restaurant and see this all the time. Some lad or young lady is about to take their first step on the long and harrowing Road of Spice by pouring themselves some hot sauce or ordering the jalepeno sausage when their busy body parents get up in their face and tell them it's gonna be too hot for them.

And since they're too young to have realized their parents are full of it, they just get spooked over peppers. And it's a damn shame, too. If these squishy, spoiled American children were purified by enduring habanero salsa or a robust curry at an earlier age, then there's an outside chance they wouldn't become such pricks between ages sixteen and seventy.
posted by EatTheWeek at 12:44 AM on May 13, 2006

What? Obviously it's cultural. I was eating habaneros as a child as well, as were my siblings and cousins. And as has been touched on, even American kids have "spicy" candies to choose from.
posted by youarenothere at 5:00 AM on May 13, 2006

My personal experience as a kid who had the misfortune to be raised on a typically bland 1960's British working-class diet was that the first time I tried hot, spicy food, I went crazy for it. My first taste of proper hot mustard (about age six) hooked me instantly and my first taste of curry (about ten or eleven) gave me a lifetime's habit. I was a skinny, undernourished, horribly picky eater when all I was getting was boiled cabbage and plain-cooked fish and meat; I actually started eating better (and certainly with more enjoyment), once I discovered the joys of spice heat.
posted by Decani at 7:13 AM on May 13, 2006

I work in an inner city school and can say without a doubt that the kids there LOVE spicy food. Hotsauce is used more than ketchup.
posted by allthewhile at 11:06 PM on May 13, 2006

I found this thread looking for other child-related info, but couldn't resist adding my $.02. We have a 15 month old who routinely eats better for daddy than mommy. My secret? Some black pepper and/or Tabasco added to the otherwise horribly bland baby food. From a young age she has also liked tastes of grownup food like spaghetti, chili, and so forth; and we are not shy with the spices in our house (Tabasco is on the table as a condiment and in the kitchen as a spice; there is a bottle of Dave's Insanity in the kitchen and it gets used). From what I have read, its a learned thing and I have seen other children that are exposed to hot food at an early age learn to like it. I have one acquaintance that has a 5 year old that asks for hot sauce and eats it until he cries--then wants more.
posted by TedW at 4:24 PM on June 3, 2006

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