When you're pregnant, there’s more to nutrition than just nutrients — even before birth, your baby is learning to love and prefer the flavors of the things you eat. Research has proven that fetuses experience the flavors of mom’s diet. And, in fact, these flavor experiences can shape the preferences of babies during weaning and beyond. Yes, you read that right:
You have the power to shape your baby’s palate while pregnant.
In one study, conducted by Julie Mennella and colleagues, moms drank carrot juice for three consecutive weeks during their third trimester, while a second group was told to drink water. The infants of the moms who drank carrot juice showed a higher acceptance and enjoyment for carrot flavored cereal during weaning. These babies had learned to like and accept the flavor of carrots, before having experienced them for the first time as solid foods during weaning.
Studies have shown that before birth, babies taste and learn to prefer virtually anything moms eat. It’s thought that this form of flavor learning helps infants determine which foods are safe as well as promoting and continuing certain ethnic cuisines. Want your child to eat bitter green veggies or prefer the flavors of cumin? The way to get started is to eat them yourself while pregnant. Your diet serves as the first stage of developing your baby’s Flavor Intelligence. A first step in preparing your child to be a more adventurous eater — for life.
Exposure to a variety of vegetable flavors at an early age has been confirmed as an effective method for training young palates to prefer the flavors of a healthy diet later in life. While all children are born with a predisposition for sweets and an aversion to bitter tasting vegetables, these ingrained preferences can be re-shaped through early flavor learning before the age of two.
Unfortunately, as reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, while the baby food aisle is filled with a dizzying array of wholesome-looking squeezy pouches, baby foods available on today’s US market fail to help us prepare our palates for adulthood. In fact, they do quite the opposite, promoting our appetite for sweets. A recent study of 548 vegetable baby food products, showed that only 1% contained bitter green vegetables, 38% contained fruit as the first ingredient, and of products with a vegetable listed as the first ingredient, 24% were sweet-tasting red and orange vegetables.
While I’m personally an advocate for homemade baby food, I understand the need for premade options. That said, here are three specific tips for helping to select which prepared baby foods will help lead they way to your child becoming a healthy, more adventurous eater:
1) Avoid baby foods that are 100% fruit or have fruit as the lead ingredient. Kids need to learn about vegetables first. Plus, fruits are naturally liked by children because of their sweet flavor and can easily be introduced later in your child’s palate development. During the weaning process concentrate on vegetables first and avoid baby foods that are exclusively fruit.
2) Choose baby foods that have a vegetable listed as the first ingredient on the back. Don’t fall for just looking at the images or ingredients listed on the package front, which can be misleading. Check the ingredients list and focus on those that have a vegetable listed first. This means that that ingredient is the dominant ingredient (by weight) in the baby food. Many baby foods will have a fruit listed second (to add sweetness), but at least your baby will experience some flavor notes from that predominant vegetable.
3) Limit baby foods which list vegetables from the sweet flavor category (i.e. sweet potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, corn and pumpkin) as the dominant ingredient. While it’s important for children to learn to like sweet tasting vegetables as part of a healthy diet, it’s also important to remember that introducing a variety of flavor profiles (bitter, earthy, buttery, etc.) such as broccoli, green beans, peas and kale is essential in developing your child’s palate.
Science has proven that early flavor learning in children is critical to developing life-long flavor preferences and dietary habits. The key to practicing early flavor learning is variety in rotation: introducing flavors from different flavor categories and reintroducing them again 3–4 days later, being careful to introduce vegetables first and foremost. In selecting baby foods from your grocer, avoid 100% fruit, look for those that have a vegetable listed as the first ingredient and take care to choose a variety of vegetable flavors.