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Disgusting food: it's a matter of age.

Suppose someone offered you a glass of apple juice stirred with a used comb. Would you drink it? Would you sip from a straw immersed in a glass of juice containing a dead grasshopper? The chances are that you would, say psychologist Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and his colleagues, as long as you are 6 years old or younger. After the age of 6, they explain, the notion that foods mixed with "disgusting" substances are unacceptable rapidly takes hold.

But it is unclear, report the researchers in the most recently published (November) DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY, why youngsters often are willing to consume what adults view as contaminated and "gross" substances.

The scientists focused on 29 suburban and 38 inner-city children ranging in age from 3 to 12 years. While at home, each child was asked to consume the following items: juice stirred with a new comb, juice stirred with what appeared to be a used comb taken from an experimenter's purse, a cookie covered with what was labeled "grasshopper powder" (actually flour, sugar and green coloring), a dead, sterilized grasshopper and juice containing a straw and a similarly disposed grasshopper.

Not surprisingly, no child was willing to eat a grasshopper. Youngsters from 3 to 6 years old, however, were far more likely than the older children to partake of the other offerings. Three-quarters of them drank juice stirred with what was apparently a used comb, nearly half took a bite of the cookie and almost two-thirds sipped juice in which a grasshopper floated. Children from 6 to 9 years old were about half as likely to ingest any of the items. Of youngsters from 9 to 12 years old, only 9 percent drank juice stirred with a "dirty" comb, and fewer than 1 in 5 accepted the cookie or "grasshopper juice."

Only five children out of the entire sample rejected juice stirred with a new comb.

The responses of city and suburban children were largely the same.

The results are consistent with a prior study by the same researchers. Children and adults were presented with illustrated stories in which substances such as a grasshopper or dog faces dropped into a glass of milk. Contamination was reduced in stages, first by removing the substance, then by pouring out the milk and refilling the same glass, and finally by washing the glass before refilling it. Children reject a grasshopper or dog feces as food by around age 4, say the investigators, but most subjects younger than 7 say they would drink milk containing disgusting substances.

Concepts of food contamination from personal sources (a used comb) and insects develop at roughly the same age, they note, although youngsters' acceptance of contaminated juice was even greater than their reported willingness to drink contaminated milk.

All children refused something, add the psychologists, indicating that social pressures of the situation were minimal and uniform. By about age 6, they suggest, a child may develop a comprehension of how foods and beverages can be contaminated along with a clear idea about what is disgusting, as opposed to bad-tasting or dangerous, food.

Refinements in ideas about what is disgusting occur during adolescence, say the researchers. Even 12-year-olds rarely refuse juice stirred with a new comb, but up to half the adults who have been questioned in previous studies say the would refuse the same juice.
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Title Annotation:experiments on food perceptions
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 4, 1986
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