Teaching Flavor ABCs Prenatally


Although most of our food likes and dislikes are learned over the course of a lifetime, we develop strong inclinations very early on, even before we are born.  New evidence indicates that mom’s food choices during pregnancy and nursing can significantly affect the eating decisions her children make throughout their lives.

Move over Mozart!

Not only can fetuses learn to recognize mom’s voice and favorite music, it seems they start to savor the flavor of mom’s diet before they even open their mouths.  They feast on whatever foods their mother enjoys. Fetal taste buds are fully developed by about 14 or 15 weeks of gestation and are ready to respond to and learn from mom’s dietary choices. Newborn babies, toddlers, and even older children are much more likely to prefer tastes they were exposed to during gestation and lactation. While they are still in the womb, babies’ noses and mouths are bathed with the surrounding amniotic fluid that contains odiferous compounds (chemicals we can smell). This prenatal exposure helps familiarize fetuses with the food culture they will soon be entering. So, if you get cravings for Chinese takeout during your pregnancy, don’t be surprised if your little one is crazy for Cantonese.

The sweeter the better

Humans are born with a very well-developed sweet tooth.  At birth, they can differentiate among different types and concentrations of sugar. As far as babies are concerned, the sweeter the better.  Human breast milk is naturally sweet tasting, which strongly motivates newborn infants to eat to build their growing brains. To make sure this happens human babies are born with a desire for dessert. The only other flavor preference infants demonstrate is for foods their mothers consume during pregnancy and lactation. Humans tend to be neophobic when it comes to food, which means they prefer familiar foods and avoid unfamiliar ones. This is an important survival mechanism, it helps us avoid potentially dangerous or poisonous foods.

In the natural world, sweet foods are usually safe to eat but hard to obtain.  Fruit and honey are scarce in the wild. The sugar we take for granted is brought to us through back-breaking labor in the cane fields, or heavy industrial machinery, and chemical processing. This makes sugar much more accessible in our society. We also ingest more sugar, especially since sugar is processed into most of our prepared foods. But babies don’t need to learn to like sweet flavors.  When it comes to the “ABCs” of food learning, apples, bananas and candy only enhance the natural sweet tooth. To teach your child to crave healthier foods, be a little more creative with those ABCs. When you include vegetables like asparagus, broccoli, and carrots in your diet when pregnant or nursing, you are helping your child develop food preferences that will reap lifelong health benefits.

Monotoned Manufactured Milk

Did you know that breast milk has multiple subtle flavors?  This is because breast milk is directly linked to the diet of the mother. Even the texture of breast milk changes as the fat content in her food varies.   In contrast, bottle-fed infants have very limited exposure to new tastes. They drink the exact same formula at every feeding unless their mom chooses a different formula.  Studies have found that breastfed babies tend to accept new foods more readily than formula-fed babies.  This is particularly true if the new food is one that mom ate while breastfeeding.

Unfortunately, preferences for junk foods can also be passed on to children this way, too. A recent lab study found that when pregnant or lactating rats were given foods such as cookies, candy, donuts, and potato chips, their offspring was significantly more attracted to these foods. These rat babies grew into much fatter grownups than those in the control group.  Amazingly, even if the junk food babies also consumed the very same healthful diet as the control group babies, they were still fatter as adults.

(A possible next paragraph): This study is not just surprising; it is alarming.  If babies develop a craving for junk food through their mothers’ prenatal and nursing snacking, they could end up with a predisposition for childhood obesity and pre-diabetes. Even if we moms feed them healthily as they grow, that predisposition is still there and may lead to a weight struggle later on. This study may also explain the incredible rate at which these two conditions have increased in children and teens over the past generation. The junk-food diet craving is passed on from mother to child, who grows up and passes it on to her child. It looks like moms may need to add junk food to the list of pregnancy “no-no’s,” along with cigarettes and alcohol.

Humans Must Learn How to Eat

Unlike most animals, humans are born with very few food instincts. Instead, we must learn how to eat the foods that benefit us. The ability of humans to try new foods and adapt has enabled us to survive and thrive in a wide variety of habitats. Since, as we now know, our food learning begins long before we are born, a “liking” for our own native cuisine occurs before other cultural habits can have a strong effect on us.

There is no better time to influence your child’s diet then when you are pregnant or nursing. When you eat a variety of colorful vegetables, you are stacking the deck in your favor for those future food battles. Eating healthily prenatally and while nursing will minimize the chances that you will end up with a finicky eater. We know the symptoms:  clenched teeth, elaborate expressions of disgust, and, of course, mom wearing the food instead of the baby swallowing it. The simplest way to avoid this problem is to expose your child’s growing brain to those new flavors before spitting them out is an option.