KIDS
July 31, 2012

Infants' Taste Preferences Begin Early

Infants' food and flavor preferences are shaped even before birth. Consider the effect of a good curry on amniotic fluid or breast milk.

If you don't like broccoli, perhaps you can blame it on your mother. The process of shaping the food and flavor preferences of infants begins during pregnancy but lasts only a few months into infancy, according to a flavor preference expert.

Dr. Julie Mennella, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center whose research focuses on the development of food and flavor preferences in humans, recently spoke at the International Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo. Her previous research suggests that flavor preferences begin in the uterus and continue to be influenced until an infant is three to four months old.

Biology gives humans a natural preference for sweets, but children can learn to enjoy vegetables over time if mom eats a healthy diet including plenty of fruits and vegetables while pregnant and breastfeeding.

According to Mennella, flavors are transferred through both the amniotic fluid and breast milk. The foods and beverages a mother consumes during pregnancy and the first few months of breastfeeding may influence the food and flavor preferences of a child and allow them to become accustomed to the food culture of the environment in which they will live.

In her latest research, Mennella studied formula-fed infants and the effect of different baby formulas on an infants' taste preferences. Forty-six two-week-old infants were either fed an extensively hydrolyzed protein hydrolysate formula or a cow's milk formula for one, three, or eight months. At 8.5 months the infants were then fed either a plain broth or a savory broth. Those babies who were fed the hydrolysate formula for 3 or 8 months ate more of the savory broth and consumed it at a faster rate, indicating a greater acceptance of it compared to the plain broth. The infants who had the hydrolysate formula for only one month showed no preference.

Extensively hydrolyzed protein hydrolysate infant formulas consist of protein that is broken down and consists of short protein chains and free amino acids. They are designed for children with severe milk allergies, and they tend to have a very savory, sour and bitter flavor compared to formulas made from cow's milk.

Mennella said the results of the study suggest that infants exposed to savory flavors in formula or breast milk may be more likely to develop a preference for savory flavors, such as the taste of broccoli or other bitter vegetables.

These findings have important implications for shaping the food preferences of infants - food preferences that will continue into childhood and possibly beyond, ultimately affecting their adult health. Menella's research suggests that amniotic fluid is flavored by the foods and beverages the mother consumes. A baby drinks several ounces of amniotic fluid a day, and Mennella believes the memories of the flavors are formed before birth. Breast milk also is flavored by what a mother consumes, and can shape flavor preferences of an infant.

Biology gives humans a natural preference for sweets, but children can learn to enjoy vegetables over time if mom eats a healthy diet including plenty of fruits and vegetables while pregnant and breastfeeding. The best predictor of how many fruits and vegetables a child eats at age eight is how many he or she ate at age two.

Dr. Mennella's latest study was published online in the journal, Clinical Nutrition.

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