Infants

What Your Mom Ate While She Was Pregnant Shaped Your Tastes for Life

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What's your favorite food? Are you more likely to try out a new ethnic restaurant, or stick with your old familiar standby? Is your kitchen full of fruits and veggies or salty snacks? Whatever your food preferences, they probably go far back — way, way back, to before you were born. Research shows that what your mother ate when she was pregnant with you probably shaped your tastes later in life.

You Are What You Eat

In the 1990s, Julie Mennella, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, set out to study how a mother's diet affects her baby's food preferences. She got the idea from dairy farmers, who realized decades ago that cows that grazed on vegetation with strong flavors, like wild garlic and onion, could transfer those flavors to their milk. It was likely that the same thing probably happened with humans — and if a mother's diet flavored her milk, it might flavor her amniotic fluid, too.

For a study published in a 1995 issue of the journal Chemical Senses, Mennella and her colleagues gave pregnant women either garlic capsules or a placebo and then took routine samples of their amniotic fluid. When a panel of judges smelled the samples, they easily sniffed out the ones from the women who ate the garlic. And since the sense of taste and smell are intimately entwined, it was likely that the women's developing offspring could taste the garlic, too.

Research into animal mothers also taught scientists something else: baby animals tend to prefer the food their mother was eating both while she was pregnant and while she was nursing. In 1994, a study in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that rabbit pups exposed to the strong taste of juniper preferred juniper later in life, regardless of whether they were exposed to it in the womb, while nursing, or in their mother's, er, fecal pellets. (They're called cecotropes, and they're a part of a balanced bunny breakfast!)

But the question remained: is the same true of humans? Does a baby who tastes garlic in the womb go crazy for garlic when they're older?

What's Good For The Goose Is Good For The Gosling

To find out, Mennella randomly assigned pregnant women to drink a big glass of carrot juice every day while they were pregnant, while they were nursing, or both. Then, once the babies were old enough to have been eating solid food for about a month (but before they had ever eaten carrots), the researchers gave babies cereal doused with water and cereal doused with carrot juice and watched to see which they liked more. The babies exposed to the flavor of carrots in the womb or while breastfeeding displayed fewer negative facial expressions and appeared to enjoy it more when eating the carrot-flavored cereal than the babies who hadn't been exposed to the flavor.

Despite the fact that some well-meaning people have told mothers to avoid spicy food while breastfeeding, the research shows that the more flavors a baby experiences in the womb and while nursing, the more diverse their tastes will be later in life. And the more diverse their tastes, the more likely they are to eat a wide variety of fruits, veggies, and other nutritious foods when they're older. So if you have a taste for healthy food, thank Mom! The choices she made before you were born are still affecting your choices today.

Importance of Nutrition During Pregnancy

Written by Ashley Hamer January 5, 2018