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The origins of human taste, flavor and food preferences

by PhD & RD
| June 30, 2010 9:00 PM

Most pregnant women take great care in what they eat, knowing that their baby is dependent on them to get the nutrients they need to grow. But what they may not realize is that foods the fetus is exposed to could set the stage for an infant's later acceptance of solid foods.

During an ultrasound, you can sometimes see fetuses sticking out their tongues (where their taste buds are located), tasting the amniotic fluid. Recent research suggests that an unborn baby is able to taste the different flavors of the foods its mother eats. Many strong flavors in the maternal diet are present in the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus.

This was first discovered when garlic was smelled in the amniotic fluid of women who had eaten garlic. The fetus regularly swallows amniotic fluid. The flavors and smells of amniotic fluid teach babies about the foods and aromas of their mother's diet and their local culture. This is why preferences for various ethnic cuisines appear to be present from birth.

Dr. Julie Mennella has published many studies on flavor preferences in infants. In one study published by the Monell Institute, she looked at two groups of pregnant women. One had repeated exposure to carrot juice during the last few weeks of their pregnancy and the other did not. After they were born, when they were ready for solids, babies who's mothers had been given the carrot juice preferred the taste of carrots far more than babies whose mothers had not. These findings suggest that experience with dietary flavors begins in the womb.

The same processes which flavor the amniotic fluid, flavor the mother's breast milk. If you think about it, infant formula is uniform in its consistency in taste and smell. But, breast milk varies on a daily basis depending on the mother's diet. Many studies have looked at the variability of the breastfeeding woman's diet and food acceptance of the infants. If you want to raise a "non" picky eater, model that behavior yourself while pregnant or breastfeeding. If you want to have a child who loves fruits and vegetables, be sure to eat these foods when pregnant or nursing.

During pregnancy just may be the easiest time to influence the course of your child's diet later in life. So be sure to eat the foods now that you will want him or her to eat later.

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