I have a story. While hardly a unique story to any parent that was kept up at night by a child in gastric distress, it is a story that I am certain many parents can relate to. I call it the night of “Curry Fury.” My son was about 3 months old and still intently nursing, and my wife desperately wanted her fill of mildly spicy Indian curry. We had some concerns about how an intake of spicy foods might affect her milk supply, so she ate moderately. Still, after nursing before bed, my son was awake and miserable for most of the night – a result of spicy food breaking the barrier from primary consumer to secondary consumer. I remember thinking, “mothers in India, Mexico, and Korea eat equally, it not more, spicy food and their breast feeding children seem to deal…what gives?” Well the difference, at least for that night, may not have been interwoven in heritage or acculturation, but more of an issue of exposure and frequency.
Let me explain: The issue is not so much that young children and babies are unable to deal with spicy food when it is passed through the mother’s milk, what they are having difficulty with is the newness and unfamiliarity of such distinct foods. Children raised in cultures where distinct foods that are either excessively bitter, astringent, spicy, or acidic, are the norm, are exposed to these foods very early in life, sometimes in utero. This not only builds tolerance for these foods, but also cultivates a taste for such foods. According to a recent NPR report, “At 21 weeks after conception, a developing baby weighs about as much as a can of Coke — and he or she can taste it, too. Still in the womb, the growing baby gulps down several ounces of amniotic fluid daily. That fluid surrounding the baby is actually flavored by the foods and beverages the mother has eaten in the last few hours.” So even the food that a woman eats during pregnancy, may shape, not just food tolerance, but food preferences of that child. “Things like vanilla, carrot, garlic, anise, mint — these are some of the flavors that have been shown to be transmitted to amniotic fluid or mother’s milk,” says Julie Mennella, who studies taste in infants at the Monell Chemical Senses Center.
Studies were done in which pregnant women were given sizable doses of carrot juice during their pregnancy. As a result, their babies displayed a distinct bias towards cereal flavored with carrot juice, showing a clear link between exposure and acceptance. This makes a lot of evolutionary sense, says Mennella. Since mothers tend to feed their children what they eat themselves, it is nature’s way of introducing babies to the foods and flavors that they are likely to encounter in their family and their culture.
But beyond cultural issues around food, these findings work to strengthen the idea that exposure to a variety of foods during pregnancy might insure a child who is willing to experiment with a variety of flavors. This is not to advocate a steady diet of kim chee and spicy arugula, but a truly varied diet by the mother seems to promote a more adventuresome palate among the child. Eat nothing but pizza and French fries, and you will likely have a child that reflects such limits. Eat a variety of fruits, grains, and leafy greens, and your child just may develop a taste for such foods with less fuss.
Does any of this ring true to you? Do you think exposure is everything, or are there just some foods that your kids, or any kids, won’t go for? Have you had personal experience with food intolerance and food acceptance that contributes or negates these points?