Of the many things you have to thank your mom for this Mother's Day, you can add one of her first gifts to you: your food preferences, at least your earliest ones. Even before you were born, she was exposing you to different flavors in the womb via amniotic fluid. If she breast-fed you, what she ate affected the taste of her milk. And the more flavors you were exposed to as a fetus or an infant, the more likely you were to accept those flavors when they were introduced as solid foods, according to research from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, based in Philadelphia.
Does this mean Andrew Zimmern's mother was gorging on insects and pig ears while she was pregnant with him? Probably not, though she may have been eating a wide variety of foods, predisposing him to be accepting of more flavors than a mother who stuck to blander fare.
In a study published in the December 2007 issue of the journal Pediatrics, Monell researchers Julie A. Menella and Catherine Forestell found that infants who were breast-fed and whose mothers repeatedly ate certain foods—such as vegetables—were more likely to accept those foods during and after weaning. But formula-fed babies and those with Brussels sprout-averse mothers aren't necessarily destined to become vegetable haters themselves. Repeated exposure of an infant to a food often leads to eventual acceptance, the researchers note. In other words, if baby makes faces or spits her peas out the first few times she tastes them, keep trying. "Babies are born with a dislike for bitter tastes," explains Mennella in a press release about the study. "If mothers want their babies to learn to like to eat vegetables, especially green vegetables, they need to provide them with opportunities to taste these foods."
This is especially important because, as another Monell study published in 2007 notes, it is much harder to overcome a child's dislike of vegetables or other foods after the toddler stage. And breast-fed babies, who were exposed to a greater variety of flavors than the consistent flavor of formula, were more likely to respond positively to any novel food—not just those they had been specifically introduced to via breast milk or amniotic fluid.
Other research has found that babies whose mothers ate a lot of garlic or anise-flavored foods during pregnancy were more oriented toward those odors after birth. And although scientists have only recently begun to understand the effects of pre-natal exposure to various foods on a fetus, many cultures have traditional beliefs about what pregnant women should eat. For instance, Mennella and Forestell explain, in parts of Nigeria women are told not to eat meat, because it is believed that behavioral traits of the animal ingested will be passed along to the child. Elsewhere, traditional foods are prescribed because it is believed they will make a mother's milk thicker or more abundant. This contributes to the effect of passing along cultural flavor preferences long before a child is even able to eat traditional dishes.
A fetus begins to perceive flavors in a rudimentary way by the third trimester of prenatal development, when the taste buds and olfactory receptors become able to convey information to the central nervous system. These processes continue to develop after birth and into childhood. Other factors, including genetics and experience, which I will write about in future posts, also play an important role in food preferences.
But it's clear that, when it comes to how a baby responds to her first taste of applesauce, the apple doesn't usually fall far from the tree.