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Influence Your Child’s Palate Before Birth

August 10, 2011

When are our adult food preferences formed? According to new research they are ingrained in us very early in the womb.

New research by the Monell Chemical Senses Center finds that mothers can influence a baby’s palate and food memories before it is born by introducing foods to her unborn child. In the womb, the baby is surrounded and nourished on the amniotic fluid, which is filled with the flavors of what the mom has eaten.

“Things like vanilla, carrot, garlic, anise, mint — these are some of the flavors that have been shown to be transmitted to amniotic fluid or mother’s milk,” Julie Mennella, a researcher at Monell, told National Public Radio (NPR).

At 21 weeks after conception, a developing baby weighs about as much as a can of soda and he or she can taste it, too. Still in the womb, the growing baby gulps down several ounces of amniotic fluid daily.

That fluid surrounding the baby is actually flavored by the foods and beverages the mother has eaten in the last few hours, forming memories of these flavors even before birth. These memories result in preferences for these foods or odors for a lifetime.

To study this theory, researchers gave women garlic capsules or sugar capsules before taking a routine sample of their amniotic fluid and then asked a panel of people to smell the samples.

“And it was easy,” says Mennella. “They could pick out the samples easily from the women who ate garlic.” The sense of taste is actually 90 percent smell, she added, so they knew just from the odor that the babies could taste it.

Mennella says she got the idea from dairy farmers, who in the 1960s and 70s were doing research on how the diet of the dairy cow impacted the flavor of the milk. It was shown that cows that graze on wild garlic and onion, or who live in stinking barns, produce milk with distinct flavors.

Since mothers tend to feed their children what they eat themselves, it is nature’s way of introducing babies to the foods and flavors that they are likely to encounter in their family and their culture.

“Each individual baby is having their own unique experience, it’s changing from hour to hour, from day to day, from month to month,” says Mennella. “As a stimulus it’s providing so much information to that baby about who they are as a family and what are the foods their family enjoys and appreciates.”

University of Florida taste researcher Linda Bartoshuk told NPR reporter Gretchen Cuda-Kroen that babies are born with very few hard and fast taste preferences. She says Mennella’s work shows that very early exposures to flavors, both before and after birth, make it more likely that children will accept a wide variety of flavors.

When those early exposures are reinforced over a lifetime, Bartoshuk thinks they might have far-reaching implications, even promoting good eating.

“To what extent can we make a baby eat a healthier diet by exposing it to all the right flavors, broccoli, carrots, lima beans, et cetera? Could we do that or not? My guess is we could,” says Bartoshuk.

Mennella acknowledges that many toddlers will still make a sour face when given broccoli, no matter how much the mother ate while pregnant and maybe they will never like it. But she says parents should keep exposing young children to these flavors because they can eventually learn to like them.

The study is publishedin the journal Pediatrics.

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