Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Babies learn healthy food preferences in the womb, study shows

The only vegetables that my cousin Martin will eat are white potatoes. He does have some flexibility about how they're cooked, I'll give him that. Baked potatoes, french fries, mashed potatoes, and tater tots are all acceptable to him. But he's quite consistent in his rejection of all other vegetables. Martin's 34 now and I've known him his whole life. He's always been a taters-only kind of guy.

I thought about Martin recently when I read an article about how babies learn to like vegetables that may have a slightly bitter taste, or otherwise distinctive taste, such as broccoli or carrots. If any veggie has a truly bland and unobjectionable taste, it would be white potatoes.

What if kids don't like nutritious veggies?

Potatoes are high in carbs, but their white flesh is not known for a wide range of other nutrients. The most colorful vegetables and fruits tend to be the most nutritious and to have the most disease-preventing qualities. The dark greens, the reds, the orange-yellows, and the blue-purples. Some are sweet, but many others are not so. Most veggies that are packed with nutrients have a taste that can be disagreeable to some. And if kids don't like them, what can you do?  Serve white potatoes at every meal? Disguise more nutritious vegetables with dressings or other ingredients? Maybe.

Babies can learn to like veggies in utero or through breast milk

Another option is to start introducing potentially disagreeable tastes very early. Research suggests early introduction makes a difference in a child's acceptance of different tastes. A baby can become acquainted with tastes of flavorful vegetables even while 100% breastfed. Even before birth! That's according to bio-psychologist Julie Mennella of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. In an experiment, Mennella followed the diets of pregnant and breast-feeding mothers for three weeks, asking some of the women to drink carrot juice every day. She then later kept track of the babies when they were introduced to solid foods. The babies of the mothers who had consumed carrot juice for three weeks liked carrots better than babies whose mothers had not.

Exposure to tastes in infancy can make a big difference

In a different experiment, Mennella looked at babies being offered carrots for the first time. She found that those who'd eaten a variety of vegetables in the past liked the carrots more than those who'd had little exposure to other vegetables. She suggested that early exposure to a variety of flavors helps babies to trust new foods later in life.

Mennella also experimented with babies and flavored formulas. She observed (not surprisingly) that 7-month-old babies disliked and rejected formula that had been given a slightly bitter or sour taste. But 7-month-olds who had been introduced to the bitter or sour formula months earlier drank it happily. "Clearly experience is a factor in developing food habits," said Mennella.

Future comfort foods may be learned in Mom's arms

Not just taste experience, but emotional experience too is important in shaping our eating habits. Mennela said that foods we learn to trust while in the safety of our mother's arms may form the foundation of what we regard as comfort food later on.   Come to think of it, Martin's mom is a big fan of potatoes.  And she does know how to cook 'em!  On holidays, she serves a dish of potato wedges that have been doused in olive oil and baked in a a hot oven until slightly crisp on the outside. Yum! Perhaps not as nutritious as carrots or kale, but most definitely a comfort food!