Mothers can prenatally influence their babies' taste palates during pregnancy, which can offer some explanation for cultural and ethnic differences in food preference, according to new research.
Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center found flavors experienced prenatally directly affect preferences after birth, shaping taste palates, preferences and food memories before babies are exposed to solid food.
During the fetal period, a developing baby is nourished by amniotic fluid from its mother. Along with crucial nutrients for a fetus, amniotic fluid also contains flavors consumed by the mother, along with breast milk.
"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, lead author of the study, told National Public Radio.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, used 46 pregnant women who were already mothers and were not aware of the purpose of the study. Divided into three groups, the women were given regimens to follow: One group was instructed to drink carrot juice during pregnancy, another group during breastfeeding and another, used as a control, to avoid carrot juice.
After the children were able to eat solid foods, the mothers fed them cereal prepared with carrot juice at the usual time of day they eat and videotaped them. Both the mothers and a professional team of raters evaluated the children's response to the food on a 1-9 scale based on facial expressions and gestures.
The findings showed that infants exposed to the carrot flavor prenatally and postnatally in breast milk seemed to enjoy the flavor more than the control group.
The results proved that a child's sensory experience to taste is established before he or she ever has solid food during weaning and will shape their satisfaction with particular foods based on what the mother eats.
As the first clues that children's taste palates are influenced from prenatal flavor experiences and repetition, the research suggests that cultural flavor principles are instilled before birth based on the mother's diet.
"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," Mennella said.
The research concludes that parents can teach their children to like certain flavors and foods prenatally and this will translate into postnatal diet and directly influence their taste preferences.