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Food neophobia

Food neophobia is the fear of trying new food. It is mainly seen in children between two and six years of age.
© Getty Images / Claudia Rehm

Neophobia (from the Greek neos, new and phobein, to fear) is the fear of anything new or unfamiliar. Food neophobia, or the fear of trying new food, is considered as a normal stage in child development and affects between 50 and 75% of children. It generally occurs between the ages of two and six and then wears off, eventually disappearing as children grow up. However, in some cases, it can continue into adulthood. New food is rejected when it is served, not when it is tasted. It is important to differentiate between people who are ‘picky’, rejecting both unfamiliar and familiar food, as they often do not like the taste, and people with food neophobia who only reject unfamiliar food. 

Neophobia in children

The phenomenon of food neophobia was initially described as a survival mechanism that was beneficial in evolutionary terms since it prevented the ingestion of potentially toxic plants. As an example, children naturally reject food with a bitter taste, which has been associated with chemical, toxic or harmful products.

Food neophobia is rare among newborns and becomes apparent once solid food replaces breastmilk. It then reaches a peak in children between the ages of two and six, before declining thereafter. Food neophobia may cause deficiencies as it often concerns the fruit and vegetable group, which contains essential vitamins for the body.

According to studies, children form a mental picture of what acceptable food should look like and maybe smell like. They thus reject anything that is too different from this picture. If a food is recognised and accepted at the visual level, it will be tasted. Its taste will then be assessed for its subjective value (positive or negative), which in turn will be associated with the visual image. Successful and continually positive experiences with such food will reduce children’s reluctance to eat it. Studies have shown that a foodstuff must be presented eight times to a child in order for it to be accepted.

Presenting new food in a positive way, by preparing it in a fun way or making it look entertaining on the plate, seems to reduce the phobia it inspires. On the other hand, forcing a child to consume a new foodstuff could accentuate the phobia. Moreover, restrictive behaviour by parents towards certain types of food (restricting their consumption or the times when they can be consumed) is associated with an increase in food neophobia in the child.

Neophobia in adults

While food neophobia has usually disappeared by adolescence, in some cases it is still apparent in adults, who restrict their diet to a few familiar products and refuse to eat any new foodstuff. As a consequence, they suffer from deficiencies and often from social exclusion.

Food neophobia may also appear in old age. This can be explained by several phenomena, such as poor dental health or gastric troubles which can prompt seniors to avoid certain types of food.

The involvement of olfaction and appropriate treatment

The sense of smell plays an important role in emotions and memories. It can also induce behaviour that adapts to environmental stimuli. Olfaction can, for example, alert the organism to the presence of potentially dangerous elements in the environment and to recognise food that is useful for survival. Moreover, it has a big influence on diet, because it plays an important role in flavour perception. Studies have shown that people suffering from food neophobia do not perceive smells (food-related or otherwise) as pleasant and as intense as non-sufferers do. Given that food neophobes seem to sniff less intensely to detect smells, it could be that their phobia stems from the fear of a bad experience with a smell.

In general, food neophobia gradually disappears as children grow up. However, if this phobia persists, a cognitive-behavioural approach is generally advised. This approach works on patients’ exposure to new food and their perception, provides nutritional advice and gradually incorporates a high number of new food products into their diet.