Why does chewing have to be learned? — If children learn to chew properly they will grow into adults who can control their chewing activity depending on the texture of the food they are eating. This will enhance the food’s texture, taste and smell, making eating more pleasurable. It goes beyond oral pleasure, since well-chewed foods are easier to digest, and nutrients are better absorbed. Chewing well also helps trigger satiety, which basically encourages healthy eating habits by regulating food intake.
Chewing is a fine motor skill that needs to be learned. Just like a child has to learn how to hold a pen and progress from a random scribble to a controlled line, he or she also needs to learn to deal with new food textures. At the same time the child has to adapt to incredible anatomical changes in the mouth. First, the mouth itself doubles in volume from birth to 4 years of age. Meanwhile, the masticatory muscles become thicker and stronger; the tongue becomes functionally independent of the jaw between 6 and 24 months of age, allowing finer control of food during mastication.
Learning to chew has a variety of effects. Human and animal studies report how food texture affects orofacial development, suggesting that a diet with harder textures promotes bone and muscle growth (allowing more space for the permanent dentition to evolve). It can also indirectly improve mastication, i.e. the ability to crush foods between teeth and manipulate the pulped food for easy swallowing. More importantly, reports show that children prefer food textures they can manipulate, and early exposure to a range of textures facilitates greater acceptance of textures later on. Studies show that children who taste different foods early on have better chewing skills and are more inclined to accept fruits and vegetables, a cornerstone of healthy eating habits.
Mastication can become impaired during ageing. The processes established in infancy are reversed; dental health deteriorates, tongue strength and sensitivity decreases, masticatory muscles weaken and salivary secretion declines. This impacts the ability to detect differences in texture, taste, and smell of foods. This makes chewing less efficient, spoiling enjoyment of eating and leading to food avoidance and decline of nutritional status. In fact, helping older people to maintain their masticatory function seems just as important as helping children to learn how to chew.