The New Gastronome
by Giorgia Cabrino
by Giorgia Cabrino
I was pregnant with my daughter Maddalena when I was working on my thesis. Because of these joint events, that period was full of inspiration for my personal interest in a very peculiar topic related to gastronomic sciences: the beginning of the education of taste not only during childhood but during pregnancy period. It was an exceptional time for me—I felt like we were growing together!
The pregnancy period is a unique moment for a woman, a biologically natural event yet emotionally and psychologically still surrounded by a particular mystery and trepidation. Consequently, it is a life situation characterized by a specific need for comparison. Mothers have to balance medical advice and traditional beliefs coming from their family.
Pregnancy Throughout The Ages, Then and Now
In the past, the pregnant woman was considered solely responsible for the baby’s beauty and health. Hence everything that could happen to her, for better or worse, would affect the gestation and the good growth of the child. Beliefs coming from oral tradition provide a series of precepts and suggestions with particular attention to the purity of air, eating and drinking, sleeping and being awake, movement and rest, and feelings and sensations. Besides these most obvious advice,, there were also some curious beliefs, like the one saying that the mother’s diet could influence the sex of the unborn child: a high-calorie diet would result in a male child, while a low-calorie diet would result in a female child. Today, thanks to medical and scientific advances, expectant mothers can monitor their baby’s health from the beginning of conception and follow their doctor’s prescriptions to ensure proper fetal development week after week. Nevertheless, the old advice and folk beliefs still guide the nine months of pregnancy and the subsequent breastfeeding period.
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What Can Babies Taste?
It is worth noting how both traditional beliefs and scientific evidence recognize the extreme importance of nutrition: during pregnancy and breastfeeding, women must pay particular attention to what they consume because this will affect the growth and development of their babies. Of course, it is impossible to talk about nutrition without taste. But what is the taste of babies, and how do they learn? In the past, people believed that babies were born with an innate sense of taste and that they could develop it during pregnancy.
Recent studies have confirmed this idea: babies born from mothers who have consumed different types of food during their pregnancy taste things differently. Infants experience new flavors and naturally develop a propensity and a future preference for particular tastes, first through the amniotic fluid and then through the mother’s milk. Accordingly, those most exposed since gestation to a varied diet and multiple flavors during weaning would more readily accept more ‘difficult’ tastes and, in particular, would consume some foods in advance without too much difficulty, such as vegetables, characterized mainly through taste ‘ bitter’ (one of the most crucial factors in determining a baby’s preference for food). For this reason, it is crucial to start educating the baby’s taste during pregnancy and then continue with breastfeeding and weaning. The weaning phase is the period with the most evident changes in the complexity and variability of foods proposed to the baby. In order to better deal with this stage, it is worth paying more attention to the previous phases and to the important role of the so-called “gustatory bridge”. Thus it connects pregnancy with lactation, and it constitutes a fundamental step to achieve good success in the weaning phase thanks to the previous exposure to the tastes of food that alleviates the stress of food transition.
How Babies Experience Taste Before Birth
During pregnancy, the molecules of the flavoring substances pass through the placental filter into the amniotic fluid via the mother’s food. Then they are absorbed by the baby, starting from the 12th week of pregnancy. Thus, the baby begins to discover and learn about new flavors by passively swallowing them. Between the 26th and 28th week of pregnancy, a connection can be established between the fetus’ facial expressions and the taste of the amniotic fluid. By the 32nd week, the child can already dose food according to the perceived taste. During the breastfeeding phase, taste development is further shaped, and the baby becomes more and more similar to the mother’s food culture because the milk tastes influence the baby’s future preferences.
Research that examines the process of forming taste preferences provides important clues: children who had experienced the taste of carrots during pregnancy were the same ones who readily accepted the consumption of carrot-flavored cereals during weaning. In contrast, those who did not experience this taste rejected them. Other tests have shown that although babies initially refused some vegetables, thanks to repeated exposure over a few days, they began to accept these and other foods. For example, eating pumpkin, spinach, and carrots at least eight times guarantees a significant increase in the acceptance of these foods (and also peas) that they had never tried. A protracted and patient training led by the mother can give excellent results reflected in the variety of the child’s diet. As difficult and discouraging as the initial refusal may be, however, it is vital to know and keep in mind how essential it is to ensure proper nutrition for the health conditions of our children and how much the food preferences established in very early childhood have an impact on them. Also, in the long term, especially regarding fruit and vegetable consumption.
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So what does this mean for you?
It means the time is now ripe to start thinking about your baby’s taste buds. It is important to emphasize the importance of scientific research on taste. The scientific community is absolutely unanimous about the effectiveness of early exposure to the broadest possible range of flavors as a system for educating children to appreciate their preferences and reduce mistrust of new foods they feed children. In particular, early presentation of vegetables is the means to make them acceptable and to appreciate their tendency to taste bitter, to encourage their consumption first by young children and then by adults, and thus to establish eating habits that favor the intake of micronutrients and antioxidants, essential nutrients for the health of the body, while reducing total calorie intake.
Today the dissemination of this information can help parents to better manage all the stages related to the development of their baby’s taste.
* This article is a general overview coming from: G. Cabrino, Confronto trans-generazionale sull’approccio al cibo in gravidanza e nei primi mesi di vita, dissertation in Gastronomic Sciences, 2016.
Beuchamp & Mennella 2011
K. Beuchamp & J. A. Mennella, Flavor Perception in Human Infants: Development and Functional Significance. Philadelphia 2011.
Mennella & al. 1991
A. Mennella, G. K. Beauchamp, Maternal Diet Alters the Sensory Qualities of Human Milk and the Nursling’s Behavior. Pediatrics, 88 (4) (1991), pp. 737-44.
Mennella & al. 2004
A. Mennella, C. E. Griffin, G. K, Beuchamp, Flavour Programming During Infancy. Pediatrics 2004 Apr; 113 (4) (2004), pp. 840–845.
European Food Information Council, Taste differ – how taste preferences develop, www.eufic.org/article/en/health-and-lifestyle/food-choice/artid/how-taste preferences-develop/
The opinions expressed in the articles of this magazine do not necessarily represent the views of
The New Gastronome and The University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo.
Photos ©Aarón Gómez Figueroa.