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A taste of childhood

Once upon a time, a young Sophie Nicklaus’ interest in biology led her to study sciences. Quickly she realised that her focus would be on food. “I was interested in food quality but from the consumer point of view,” she says. And what interests her about research? “Everything!” So she set off on a quest to understand the factors that influence our food choices from early childhood.

Sophie Nicklaus, research director at the Centre for Taste and Feeding Behaviour (CSGA), INRA Dijon Bourgogne Franche-Comté © PIQUEMAL Ludovic
By Julie Cheriguene, translated by Daniel McKinnon
Updated on 06/12/2018
Published on 05/03/2018

After receiving her diploma in agricultural science, Sophie Nicklaus began a PhD thesis at INRA Dijon (1) that was her first taste of studying the development of food preference in children. She conducted a cohort study in collaboration with a nursery school paediatrician in Dijon who was following the food habits of the children in the school. “He gave me free access to all his data — and told me I’d need a wheelbarrow to carry all of it! Being able to follow certain individuals from childhood up to age 22 made it possible to understand how food preferences established in early childhood affect food behaviours through to early adulthood.” Nicklaus quickly developed methods to assess the sensory, taste and olfactory qualities of foods in order to understand their relationship with preferences and food choices. This expertise became the foundation for her future research projects.

Shaping early eating habits

Developing senses…

During Nicklaus’ post-doctoral studies in the United States (2), she studied early sensory experiences in infants. “Infants have the ability to taste and smell foods, for example through their mother’s milk. Experiencing a variety of flavours in this way can increase the appreciation for new foods when babies are weaned. We also observed that when babies eat a wide range of foods from when they are weaned, this has a positive effect on the appreciation of new foods.” In 2006, Nicklaus returned to INRA Dijon as a research scientist at the Centre for Taste and Feeding Behaviour (CSGA) (3), continuing her work through the French National Research Agency’s OPALINE project (4), which she led. This observational study examined the taste and food preferences of children from the third trimester of pregnancy to age 2. The study’s findings were then developed into models. She continued her research through the European Union’s HabEat project, which studied the factors and critical periods contributing to the formation of food habits in children under 6. “Our approach was experimental. We developed hypotheses before we had data, then tested them by asking parents to change their usual food practices.”
Sophie Nicklaus is currently coordinating the French National Research Agency’s PUNCH project, where she works with experts in sociology, experimental economics, consumer sciences, marketing and cognitive psychology. The wide-ranging project looks at a number of issues, from the quantitative control of food intake (as perceived by parents) to ways to promote healthy food choices in schoolchildren. “The aim here is to go beyond well-worn public health messages and think instead about how to promote the pleasure of eating healthy foods. This is done by finding the appropriate balance between sensory qualities and energy density, developing positive social perceptions of food consumption and increasing the representation of healthy foods.” This is in line with Claude Lévi-Strauss' belief that foods are “chosen not because they are ‘good to eat’ but because they are ‘good to think’.”

Taking pleasure in healthy eating

…informing our future food choices

Sophie Nicklaus considers herself lucky. “My research focus is something that people really care about. The findings can be translated into concrete action. Recommendations and partnerships with industrial food producers can improve the quality of the foods they produce. Working with dietary health professionals, such as paediatricians and dieticians, can influence behaviours.” Nicklaus’ work is used to inform public health policy and was recognised by the Danone International Prize for Alimentation, to be presented at the Nutrition 2018 conference in Boston later this year. The Prize is an opportunity for Nicklaus to share her vision. “Food serves four functions — nutrition, pleasure, identity, social ties — that must be taken into account. We often focus on nutrition above all else, while public health goals could be achieved more easily by addressing the four functions in a balanced way.” Nicklaus hopes to leverage the Prize to take her work out of the laboratory and share the knowledge with the wider public, and with the parents of young and school-aged children in particular. “The message is really important: how to feed children from a very young age and teach them about food so that these future consumers will be able to make the best, most informed choices.” She is strongly engaged with these issues. “I think it is important to address the needs of less privileged groups so that inequalities in health do not worsen.” As Nicklaus reminds us, “It’s never too late to learn to eat healthily.” And knowing that, we may all live happily — and healthily — ever after.

(1) Flavour, Vision and Consumer Behaviour (FLAVIC) Joint Research Unit (INRA-ENESAD-University of Burgundy), INRA Dijon Burgundy Franche-Comté
(2) Monell Chemical Senses Center, under J. Mennella, Philadelphia, USA
(3) Centre for Taste and Feeding Behaviour (CSGA) Joint Research Unit (AgroSup Dijon-CNRS-INRA-University of Burgundy–Franche-Comté), INRA Dijon Bourgogne Franche-Comté
(4) OPALINE: Observatory on the Food Preferences of Infants and Children

mini cv

  • 46 years old, 1 child
  • Since 2006: research scientist, later research director at the Centre for Taste and Feeding Behaviour (CSGA) Joint Research Unit (AgroSup Dijon-CNRS-INRA-University of Burgundy–Franche-Comté), INRA Dijon Bourgogne Franche-Comté. Leads the team studying factors shaping eating behaviour over a person’s life and their link to health.
  • 2013: accreditation to supervise research in food sciences from the University of Burgundy, Dijon.
  • 2004–2005: Post-doctoral studies, Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, USA.
  • 2004: Ph.D. in food sciences from the University of Burgundy, Dijon. Longitudinal Study of Food Preferences and Variety from Early Childhood through to Adulthood.
  • 1998–2006: sensorial analysis research engineer, Flavour, Vision and Consumer Behaviour (FLAVIC) Joint Research Unit (INRA-ENESAD-University of Burgundy), INRA Dijon Burgundy Franche-Comté. 1995: Agricultural engineering degree, National Agricultural Institute Paris-Grignon, Paris, specialisation: food quality and food regulation.
  • Author of 85 scientific journal articles, 14 book chapters, and a Quæ publication; elected member of the ALIMH Division Scientific Board; editor at the Appetite journal.

learn more

How does taste develop in children? > Read the article
How children acquire food preferences > Read the article
Yes, you can make your children eat vegetables! > Read the press release