Influence Baby’s Taste for Healthy Foods While Still in the Womb

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Want to give your child a head start to a lifelong love of healthy foods? Start by eating healthfully yourself during pregnancy. New research shows that a baby can taste certain flavors in utero and that this may help shape his or her food preferences later in life.

Julie Mennella PhD of the Monell Chemical Senses Center studies taste in infants. She notes that at about 21 weeks after conception, a developing baby gulps several ounces of amniotic fluid daily. That fluid is flavored by the foods and beverages that the mother has eaten in the last few hours.

Healthy Eating During Pregnancy Gives Baby Head Start

To test the theory that fetuses taste the flavors eaten by mom, Dr. Mennella and a team of researchers gave pregnant women either garlic capsules or sugar capsules before taking a sample of the amniotic fluid – the clear liquid that surrounds the unborn baby in the amniotic sac during pregnancy. Because the sense of taste is heavily influenced by smell, the researchers gave the fluid samples to a panel to sniff and report their findings. “They could pick out the samples easily from the women who ate garlic,” said Mennella.

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The research team also suspected that, as animals do, humans would form memories of these flavors and that could result in preferences for these foods or smells for a lifetime. They divided a group of pregnant women into three subgroups – one drank carrot juice every day during pregnancy, the second drank the juice during breastfeeding (tastes are also likely to be passed through breastmilk), and a control group avoided carrots entirely.

When the babies began to eat solid foods, researchers fed them cereal made either with water or carrot juice. The babies who had experienced carrot in the womb or while nursing ate more of the carrot-flavored cereal and appeared to enjoy it – evidenced by the fact that the babies made fewer negative faces while eating.

While the research team has yet to find a flavor that doesn’t show up in the amniotic fluid, Dr. Mennella particularly points out that strong flavors like vanilla, carrot, garlic, anise, and mint are likely to be most influential, especially since these bitter and pungent flavors are less likely to be eaten by children, especially American children. Exposure to these flavors early in life may help make it more likely for children to eat more healthful foods such as broccoli, lima beans, and dark, leafy greens.

References:
Josephine Todrank, Giora Heth and Diego Restrepo, “Effects of in utero odorant exposure on neuroanatomical development of the olfactory bulb and odour preferences” Proc. R. Soc. B 7 July 2011 vol. 278 no. 17141949-1955
Julie A. Mennella, PhD, Coren P. Jagnow, MS, Gary K. Beauchamp, PhD. “Prenatal and Postnatal Flavor Learning by Human Infants” PEDIATRICS Vol. 107 No. 6 June 1, 2001 pp. e88 (doi: 10.1542/peds.107.6.e88)

Image Credit: Photo by Menno Hordijk

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