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Are Our Tastes in Food Shaped Even Before We Are Born?

A recent experiment suggests that prenatal exposure to food tastes and smells could impact diet preferences later in life, with health consequences

Recent research may shed some light:

Researchers in Britain and France just published the first direct evidence showing that fetuses can actually taste and smell while still in the womb. These important findings could help scientists further our understanding of how human taste and smell receptors develop. But the most immediate implication is that a pregnant woman’s diet might influence their babies’ food preferences after birth.

“A number of studies have suggested that babies can taste and smell in the womb, but they are based on post-birth outcomes while our study is the first to see these reactions prior to birth,” lead researcher Beyza Ustun, a postgraduate researcher in the Fetal and Neonatal Research Lab at Durham University, said in a statement.

“As a result, we think that this repeated exposure to flavors before birth could help to establish food preferences post-birth, which could be important when thinking about messaging around healthy eating and the potential for avoiding ‘food-fussiness’ when weaning.”

Tibi Puiu, “Unborn babies can taste and smell in their mothers’ wombs” at ZME Science (September 22, 2022) The paper is open access.
human fetus

The reactions of the children at 32 and 36 weeks to different flavors in the amniotic fluid were captured on film via ultrasound:

Pregnant women and their fetuses based in the northeast of England were involved in this study from 32 to 36 weeks’ gestation. Fetuses exposed to carrot flavor (n = 35) showed “lip-corner puller” and “laughter-face gestalt” more frequently, whereas fetuses exposed to kale flavor (n = 34) showed more “upper-lip raiser,” “lower-lip depressor,” “lip stretch,” “lip presser,” and “cry-face gestalt” in comparison with the carrot group and a control group not exposed to any flavors (n = 30). The complexity of facial gestalts increased from 32 to 36 weeks in the kale condition, but not in the carrot condition. Findings of this study have important implications for understanding the earliest evidence for fetal abilities to sense and discriminate different flavors.

– From the Abstract. Ustun, B., Reissland, N., Covey, J., Schaal, B., & Blissett, J. (2022). Flavor Sensing in Utero and Emerging Discriminative Behaviors in the Human Fetus. Psychological Science, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976221105460

The authors also noted, “Amniotic fluid is the first place where fetuses start to sense their environment, specifically their chemical environment (Brumley & Robinson, 2010). This experience provides continuous sensory information, such as taste and smell, from fetal to neonatal life (Mellor, 2019; Schaal, 2005). The continuity, based on early familiarization, allows newborns to adapt to the postnatal environment (Mellor, 2019).”

Nutrition is a big topic these days, spurring medical concern around urban food deserts: “Food deserts are regions where people have limited access to healthful and affordable food. This may be due to having a low income or having to travel farther to find healthful food options.”

Science writer Puiu notes that “The researchers argue that repeated prenatal exposure to certain flavors may shape a baby’s dietary preferences, so consuming healthier but not very palatable foods (yes, like kale) during pregnancy could be a viable strategy for mothers to promote healthier diets for their children.” As he adds, more study is needed, to be sure. But starting a child out with winning eating habits might turn out to be best begun before birth.

Ignorance of life before birth

One difficulty is widespread ignorance of life before birth. An example from today’s news is the claim by Stacey Abrams, candidate for governor of Georgia, that there is “no such thing” as a fetal heartbeat at six weeks gestation.

However, just months ago the website of Planned Parenthood said a “very basic beating heart and circulatory system develop” during the fifth to sixth week of pregnancy.

Planned Parenthood later amended its website to more closely reflect pro-abortion messaging against heartbeat laws, which ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected. Now the site says a “part of the embryo starts to show cardiac activity” during that time.

Mainstream media outlets have helped further the pro-abortion messaging on fetal heartbeats. In May, after a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion suggested the Court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, NBC News reported that experts say the term “fetal heartbeat” is “misleading and medically inaccurate.”

Yet the article goes on to quote a doctor who says the heart “does begin to develop at around six weeks” but argues that “at this point the heart as we know it does not yet exist.”

Brittany Bernstein, “Stacey Abrams Claims Six-Week Fetal Heartbeats ‘Manufactured’ to Help Men Control Women” at Yahoo.com (September 22, 2022)

Here is an ultrasound of a human heart/heartbeat from that age range:

It would not be possible for a a human to survive for very long without a heart once the body has a significant number of cells and systems in formation, so the heart actually begins to take shape at about three weeks.

The heart changes as it grows and ages. The most traumatic change takes place at birth when mom’s supply line of everything essential for life is abruptly cut off and the heart is fending for itself on behalf of the whole body.

Lack of information or the spread of incorrect information about life before birth could make addressing longer term health needs more difficult.

Nutrition note: Kale needs a PR team. It offers definite health benefits but it must be treated as a cabbage, not a lettuce.

You may also wish to read: What is the human mind like before birth? Researchers stress that the unborn child’s brain is in a rapid, ongoing, and little understood state of development. While the unborn child sleeps most of the time, during waking hours, he or she practices various skills that will be needed after birth.

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Are Our Tastes in Food Shaped Even Before We Are Born?