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Baby's Palate And Food Memories Shaped Before Birth

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Baby's Palate And Food Memories Shaped Before Birth

Your Health

Baby's Palate And Food Memories Shaped Before Birth

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Here's something else that might seem impossible with young children - getting them to eat something like broccoli. I did see a kid eating broccoli over the weekend. It just wasn't my kid. New research finds that you should start trying this early, very early. Gretchen Cuda-Kroen�has this report.

GRETCHEN CUDA-KROEN: It might surprise you to learn that the amniotic fluid that cushions a fetus in the womb is not just bland, tasteless stuff.�It turns out it's flavored by the foods and beverages a pregnant woman has eaten in the last few hours.

Julie Menella studies taste in infants at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Menella says garlic, vanilla, mint, even a glass of wine or smoking a cigarette� produces pronounced flavor changes in a woman's amniotic fluid or breast milk in as little as half an hour.�To test this, she gave women garlic capsules or sugar pills before taking a routine sample of their amniotic fluid, and then asked a panel of people to smell the samples.

Ms. JULIE MENELLA (Monell Chemical Senses Center): And it was easy. They could pick out the samples easily that came from the women who ate garlic.

CUDA-KROEN: But here's the really interesting part: Menella says that not only is the amniotic fluid and breast milk in humans flavored by food, but memories of these flavors are formed even before birth, that could result in preferences for these foods or odors for a lifetime.

Menella says this had already been observed in rabbits, so she decided to test it in humans with carrots. Women were divided into three groups and asked to drink carrot juice every day during their pregnancy, or during breastfeeding, or to avoid carrots completely. Then when the infants began to eat solid food, researchers fed the babies cereal made with either with water or carrot juice, and videotaped their responses.

Ms. MENELLA: And just like the European rabbit, the babies who had experienced carrot in amniotic fluid or mother's milk ate more of the carrot-flavored cereal. And when we analyzed the videotapes, they made less negative faces while they were eating it.

CUDA-KROEN: This makes a lot of evolutionary sense, explains Menella. Since mothers tend to feed their children what they themselves eat, it's nature's way of introducing them to the foods and flavors that they're likely to encounter in their family and in their culture as they grow.

Ms. MENELLA: It's providing so much information to that baby about who they are as a family, and what are the foods that their family enjoys and appreciates.

CUDA-KROEN: That very idea got Matty Lau thinking: How is it that kids in other cultures eat foods that are spicy, bitter or have pungent flavors? She's Chinese-American and recalls growing up eating foods most American kids she knows would never touch.

Ms. MATTY LAU: I always wondered - like, how is it that I grew up, you know, as a Chinese-American, being able to eat bitter vegetables - like kale or mustard greens - and things like ginger?

CUDA-KROEN: At the time of this interview, Lau is eight months' pregnant and consciously trying to eat the flavors she loves from her native Chinese cuisine, in the hopes that when her baby is older, it will share her love of flavorful food.

Ms. LAU: I think there's just lots of different kinds of flavors that don't show up in places like McDonalds or Applebee's. And so I was really concerned that my child, you know, enjoy food as much as everybody else in my family did.

CUDA-KROEN: University of Florida taste researcher Linda Bartoshuk is familiar with Julie Menella's work on infants. She agrees that very early exposures to flavors, both before and after birth, make it more likely that children will accept a wide variety of flavors later. Bartoshuk also thinks that when early exposures are reinforced, they might have implications beyond taste preferences, even promoting good eating.

Dr. LINDA BARTOSHUK (Researcher, University of Florida): To what extent can we make a baby eat a healthier diet by giving them exposure to all the right flavors broccoli, carrots, lima beans, etc.? Could we do that or not? My guess is we could.

CUDA-KROEN: Julie Menella acknowledges that early exposure is not a guarantee of anything. Many toddlers will still make a sour face when given broccoli, no matter how much a woman eats while pregnant. And it's entirely possible they'll never like it. But she says parents should keep exposing young children to these flavors. Her research shows it takes about eight tries before little children begin to like a new food.

For NPR News, I'm Gretchen Cuda-Kroen, in Cleveland.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And we're also happy to announce that Matty Lau has given birth to a baby girl named Josie.

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