Getting adults to eat less salt, as most health agencies and experts recommend we do to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease, is a struggle.
But what if we never learned to love salt in the first place?
A study published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that babies who are exposed to salty tastes (via starchy, sodium-packed “first foods” such as crackers and cereals) develop a taste for salt early on, while little ones who don’t eat such foods don’t gravitate toward salt.
The researchers tested 61 infants at ages 2 months and 6 months to see how they responded to salt solutions delivered via bottle. Each baby was allowed to drink from each of three bottles for two minutes: One bottle contained plain water, one a 1-percent salt solution and the third a 2-percent salt solution.
At 2 months, before any had been exposed to solid food, none of the babies seemed to care for the salty solutions (the extent of their liking gauged by how much they drank from each bottle); they outright rejected the 2-percent solution.
At 6 months, the babies who had eaten sodium-containing starchy foods preferred the saltier solution. Babies who had not yet eaten such foods (but who had eaten fruit, the food used in the study to establish a comparison group) still shied away from the salty solutions.
The study followed up with some of the children as they reached preschool age and learned from their mothers that those who had been exposed to those salty, starchy foods early actually would lick salt off the surfaces of foods and even seek to eat salt on its own.
The authors note that their study only establishes an association between early consumption of salty foods and salt preference, not a cause-and-effect relationship. Still, it seems like it would be pretty easy to avoid giving foods high in sodium to babies, especially if we knew that doing so might make it easier for them to maintain healthful eating habits later in life.