Understanding how people develop food preferences and cravings has important implications for the food industry, not just for food formulators and flavour scientists, but also with the growing epidemic of obesity.
Catherine Forestell, from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, told attendees in Orlando that an infant's reactions to food are similar to an adult's.
Food preferences may start during pregnancy, she said, and pointed out that taste buds form in the seventh-week of gestation, and during pregnancy the amniotic fluid acquires the odor of the food consumed by the mother.
"We can increase children's acceptance of healthy foods by having mothers vary their diets during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Repeated exposure, only eight or nine times, leads to greater acceptance of a vegetable.
"Unlike the bottle-fed infant, who experiences a constant set of flavors from standard formulas, the breast-fed infant's sensory would is extremely rich and varied," said Forestell.
Both Dennis Drayna, of the National Institutes of Health, Sam Houston State University's John de Castro noted that numerous studies show the basis of taste preferences and dislikes is at the genetic level and heredity plays an important role.
Indeed, only last week FoodNavigator reported on a study from University College and Kings College London and British charity Cancer Research UK that concluded that a child's taste for protein-rich foods like meat and fish is inherited, but taste for vegetables and desserts are influenced.
De Castro however told attendees at IFT that eating patterns, and specifically meal portions, are conscious decisions, and that people could improve weight loss by simply cutting calories.
Barry Green from Yale University School of Medicine said that the basis of food perception, selection and consumption was linked to flavour perception.
"Flavour is not simply the sum of sensations from the classically defined senses," said Green.
"Flavour perception arises frominputs that interact within [the brain that are] organised to serve specific adaptive functions, such as poison avoidance. Understanding this organization is necessary for understanding the... basis of food perception, selection and consumption."
Previous research into taste has revealed that the human tongue has about 10,000 taste buds with five taste sensations: sweet, bitter, and umami, which work with a signal through a G-protein coupled receptor; salty and sour which work with ion channels.
Contrary to popular understanding, taste is not experienced on different parts of the tongue. Though there are small differences in sensation, which can be measured with highly specific instruments, all taste buds, essentially clusters of 50 to 100 cells, can respond to all types of taste.
Taste buds (or lingual papillae) are small structures on the upper surface of the tongue that provide information about the taste of food being eaten.