It is normal for children to hate vegetables: the evolutionary mechanisms after plant aversion and those that make us overcome it
"I don't want to", "I don't like it", "I'm not going to eat it". It seems like a joke, vegetables are by far one of the healthiest and most versatile foods we have, but the dislike children have for them is a classic in every kitchen, restaurant and school dining room. And although we might think that it is the product of a pure and simple social conditioning, the latest research points to just the opposite. Children come like this from the factory.
The explanation is that although now, in the modern world, it seems that there are only two types of plants: the decorative ones and those that come cut, washed and ready to eat; During 99% of our life on Earth, vegetables were a fundamental part of the daily life of humanity. So if we want to find answers to our complicated relationship with green, it may be a good idea to look a little further back.
Hazards difficult to detect, but easy to avoid
Plants have always been an evolutionary problem. For millions of years they have been the basis of our diet, but how can we determine which plants can be consumed and which plants are dangerous? How can we know if a plant will not be useful or not? At first glance, as Annie E Wertz explains, it is a very complicated task and directly impossible. Even on a regional scale, there are no morphological characteristics common to all edible plants, nor are there clear clues that tell us which are toxic or dangerous.
This difficulty in detecting the presence of toxins makes the error testing method especially dangerous. The use of general rules such as "avoid white flowers" or "red fruits are edible" is also useless. Eating, Wertz tells us, is much more complicated than it sounds.
For this reason, in these types of circumstances it seems reasonable to think that there are strong evolutionary pressures to favor the emergence of mechanisms and strategies that help us solve the problem. The fact that plants have "structured the physiology and behavior of many animal species" is well documented. It would not be unusual for something similar to happen to us.
Wertz theorized that there could be a collection of cognitive systems that would maximize the effectiveness of infants and toddlers in "plant learning and avoidance of natural toxins." Wertz's idea is that, since plant toxins are difficult to detect, but easy to avoid, the best evolutionary strategy would be to minimize physical contact (of any kind) with them. Evolution would have made plants boring us greatly.
In a recently published paper, Wertz's team found that babies are indeed reluctant to touch plants compared to other types of objects. Furthermore, they tend to avoid benign-looking plants and menacing-looking plants alike, suggesting that, as their theory pointed out, they do not discriminate between different types. After all, it was of little use.
Blindness to plants
But it goes beyond. As biologist Antonio J. Osuna says, this could be behind what is known as "plant blindness".Although it may sound a bit of a strong term, the idea of "plant blindness" was introduced in 1998 by James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler to answer a question as simple as it is not very evident: if plants have a fundamental role in life from Earth and are the "primary mediators between the physical and biological world", why do most people tend to appreciate animals so much more than they do? Why do so many people have trouble remembering, appreciating, or even appreciating their aesthetic properties?
I am aware that it may be a strange idea, but there are numerous examples in which it can be seen that the social value we attribute to animals is far superior to that of plants. And that difference has intrigued specialists for more than two decades.
In addition to possible educational and social biases, Wandersee and Schussler argued that this "blindness" is primarily motivated by the nature of humans' visual information processing system. According to these authors, given the impossibility of processing all the information that enters through the eyes, our perceptual systems focus on searching for visible movements, colors and patterns that may be potential threats. In the same logic as Wertz's work, plants (by statics) would receive less evolutionary interest than animals.
Are children's aversion to plants born of these mechanisms?
Be that as it may, this animosity towards plants does not always have to be good. Wertz quickly realized that this is an interesting phenomenon, but that there must be some way in which children established relationships with plants that can be avoided. It is undeniable that sooner or later we all end up eating vegetables one way or another.
And is that both food and plant materials for everyday use are elements that come into contact with babies on a regular basis. Therefore, there must be mechanisms to regulate learning about them. Investigating this, Wertz realized that young children (6-18 months) pay special attention when they see an adult eating or interacting with vegetables. Their surprise is much greater than when they interact with other animals or objects.
According to their data, starting at 18 months, children would use the information on the safety of fruits, vegetables and plants to gradually generalize these positive attitudes towards similar plants. This combination of social learning and very restrictive rules of generalization would prevent, according to Wertz, that the babies ingested toxic plants.
Are these mechanisms behind children's aversion to vegetables? It could be. As we have pointed out on other occasions, up to two or three years, the incorporation of all foods in the diet is essential. Above all, because when this phase ends, children develop what we call "food neophobia". They generate natural rejection of all foods to which they have not been exposed.
As if our learning processes considered that from the age of three we already know, culinarily, everything we should know. It is normal and also has evolutionary reasons. However, if this neophobia extends beyond the age of eight, it seriously reduces the quality of the diet and can cause problems with anxiety and self-esteem.
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