So You Say You Like Carrots

The next time you’re in the check-out line at the grocery store, take a long, hard look at your cart. Is it full of vibrantly colored veggies? Kale, peppers, and carrots? If so, go ahead and call your mom up and say thank you.

Research indicates that as a baby you develop partiality to particular tastes and flavors while still in your mother’s tummy. Amniotic fluid surrounds you while you are in your mother’s uterus. This fluid acts both as a cushion, preventing tiny baby you from being jostled around too much, and as a pathway of exchange for nutrients between you and your mom. Previous studies show that the flavor of both amniotic fluid and breast milk is influenced by the foods that your mother eats. For example, if a woman eats something garlicky, these fluids later smell and taste like garlic. As you develop, you swim around in a pool of garlic-scented liquid. You get used to the scent. And as we can all attest to, we like things that are familiar to us. You grow up and savor the taste of garlic. You love garlic bread, garlic chicken from Panda Express, etc. And it’s partly because of your exposure and familiarity to the flavor that started before you were even born.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania studied this by randomly assigning pregnant women into three different groups. Two groups were instructed to drink carrot juice during either pregnancy or lactation. The third group was a control group and told to drink only water during these time periods. Carrot was the flavor chosen as a stimulus because it distinctively flavors amniotic fluid, it was easy to ensure that the nursing mother’s only source of this flavor in their diet was under experimental control, and mashed carrots have historically been added to infant’s palates during the period of weaning.

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Image Credit: Breville USA.

Approximately a month after the mothers began feeding their child solid food, the infants were fed both cereal prepared with water and cereal prepared with carrot juice. Mother’s were instructed to feed their infant at their typical pace until they refused to eat a spoonful of cereal three consecutive times. Researchers also videotaped the infants’ responses to the cereal and trained raters ranked the baby’s enjoyment of the cereal based on how many negative faces were made. They looked for things like nose wrinkling, brow lowering, gaping, and head turning made in response to each spoonful of cereal offered. Additionally, measurements were made of the weight of cereal that eat child ate both in the regularly flavored case and in the carrot-flavored case.  Results showed that babies who had experienced carrot in amniotic fluid or in their mother’s breast milk more readily accepted the carrot-flavored cereal, ate more of it than the unflavored cereal, and made fewer negative faces while eating the cereal.

Dr. Mandella, the researcher who conducted this study, says that the results make biological and evolutionary sense. The flavored amniotic fluid and breast milk introduces infants to the foods and the flavors that they will encounter as a product of their family and culture. For example, traditional Chinese relies heavily on flavors from ingredients like ginger and chili peppers. Children would typically have an aversion to such flavors because of their bitterness and spiciness. However, Chinese parents do not often have a problem getting their children to eat these types of food. Imagine trying to get a typical American child to eat the same things that their Chinese counterparts do. It would probably be difficult. But because the Chinese children were exposed to the bitter and spicy flavors in utero, then through their mother’s breast milk, and then were additionally reinforced by watching their parent’s consumption of such foods they can tolerate and even enjoy these flavors during their childhood.

Researchers also believe that if such exposures are continually reinforced throughout a child’s lifetime, they will have long-term implications, such as promoting sustained healthy eating. So if you’ve ever wondered why some people love brussel sprouts, while you find them distasteful, remember it’s partially your mother’s doing, not solely your own.

About the Author

LKeithLiz Keith is an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia pursuing a degree in Environmental Engineering. In her free time you can find Liz driving to Jackson County to hangout with her Young Life girls, talking about the summer camp she works at, or beep-bopping around town in search of the best breakfast restaurant. You can contact her at epk79175@uga.edu. More from Liz Keith.