Aim To determine whether depression and family history of alcoholism are associated with heightened sweet preferences in children, before they have experienced alcohol or tobacco and at a time during the life-span when sweets are particularly salient.
Design Between- and within-subject experimental study.
Participants Children, 5–12 years old (n = 300), formed four groups based on family history of alcohol dependence up to second-degree relatives [positive (FHP) versus negative (FHN)] and depressive symptoms as determined by the Pictorial Depression Scale [depressed (PDEP) versus non-depressed (NDEP)].
Measurements Children were tested individually to measure sucrose preferences, sweet food liking and, for a subset of the children, the analgesic properties of sucrose versus water during the cold pressor test.
Findings The co-occurrence of having a family history of alcoholism and self-reports of depressive symptomatology was associated significantly with a preference for a more concentrated sucrose solution, while depressive symptomatology alone was associated with greater liking for sweet-tasting foods and candies and increased pain sensitivity. Depression antagonized the analgesic properties of sucrose.
Conclusions While children as a group innately like sweets and feel better after eating them, the present study reveals significant contributions of family history of alcoholism and depression to this effect. Whether the heightened sweet preference and the use of sweets to alleviate depression are markers for developing alcohol-related problems or responses that are protective are important areas for future research.