Eating habits start in the womb
RESEARCHERS at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a non-profit research organisation in Philadelphia, have found that babies born to mothers who eat a diverse and varied diet while pregnant and breastfeeding are more open to a wide range of flavours.
They also found that babies who follow that diet after weaning carry those preferences into adulthood.
Researchers believe that the taste preferences that develop at crucial periods in infancy have lasting effects.
"What's really interesting about children is that the preferences they form during the first years of life actually predict what they'll eat later," said Dr Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist and researcher at the Monell centre. "Dietary patterns track from early to later childhood, but, once they are formed, once they get older, it's really difficult to change."
Many parents who are eating a diet high in processed, refined foods feed their babies as they feed themselves, and could be setting their children up for a lifetime of preferences for a narrow range of flavours.
The Monell researchers identified several sensitive periods for taste-preference development. One such period is before 31/2 months of age, which highlights the importance of what the mother eats while pregnant and breastfeeding.
Dr Gary Beauchamp, the director of the Monell centre, said: "Humans are exposed to flavours - both in utero and via their mother's milk - that are signals of things that will be in our diets as we grow up and learn about what flavours are acceptable based on those experiences.
"Infants exposed to many flavours in infancy are more willing to accept a variety of flavours, including those associated with vegetables, and that might lead to a more healthy eating style later on.
"This early exposure leads to an imprinting-like phenomenon such that those flavours are not only preferred, but they also take on an emotional attachment."
This puts babies who are fed formula at a disadvantage, because the flavours in packaged formula never change. But according to Dr Mennella, the opportunity to expose such babies to a range of flavours is not lost. She said: "Babies learn through repeated exposure, so the more varied the diet, the more likely they'll be to accept a novel food."