Flavors in breast milk and baby formula: How early feeding experiences shape your baby’s preferences for solid foods
© 2009 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
What's in breast milk?
Scientists have discovered over
200 different vitamins, minerals, proteins, fatty acids, amino acids,
hormones, anti-inflammatory agents, and other
constituents of human breast milk.
These are the “standard” ingredients. What about the “extra” ingredients, the flavors in breast milk that vary with a mother’s diet?
When you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or bottle-feeding, your child’s attitude towards broccoli might seem like a far-off thing.
But food flavors are transmitted through the placenta and breast, and research suggests that babies can detect them.
Babies often like these “second hand” flavors. One experiment gave
breastfeeding moms garlic pills and then measured how long their 3-month
old infants suckled at the breast (Mennella and Beauchamp 1991).
1.5 and 3 hours after the women had swallowed the pills, the garlic
odor of their breast milk reached a peak and the babies noticed.
Compared with babies whose mothers took placebo pills, the “garlic
babies” spent more time attached to the breast.
So long before your baby’s first attempts to eat solid food, she has already encountered a variety of flavors.
Do these early flavor experiences make a difference? Experiments suggest that they do.
Prenatal learning of baby food preferences
Food flavors pass through the placenta into the amniotic fluid, which
fetuses swallow on a regular basis. Studies suggest that newborns are
more accepting of flavors they have encountered during gestation, and
the effects might last for months after birth. For more information, see
these stories on
the newborn senses of smell and taste
prenatal learning of baby food preferences.
The effects of breast milk on baby food preferences
Research also indicates that baby food preferences are influenced by the flavors found in breast milk.
one study, Julie Mennella and colleagues asked breastfeeding moms to
drink carrot juice every day (Mennella et al 2001). Then, when the
infants were ready to eat solid foods, the researchers offered babies a
choice between plain cereal and cereal flavored with carrot juice.
When the babies were introduced to carrot-flavored cereal, they made fewer negative facial expressions.
These results suggest that breastfed babies might be learning about--and forming preferences for--all sorts of foods.
fact, there is some evidence that breastfed (as opposed to formula-fed)
babies are more accepting of new foods when they begin eating solids
(Sullivan and Birch 1994).
But it’s possible that the effect depends on what foods lactating moms consume on a regular basis.
a study of moms who had consumed low levels of green beans during the
months they were lactating, their babies were no more likely to accept
pureed green beans than were formula-fed babies. On the other hand, the
breastfeeding moms had eaten lots of fruit during lactation, and their
babies were more accepting of peaches than were the babies accustomed to
formula (Forestell and Mennella 2007).
Baby formula affects food preferences, too
In an experiment on preschoolers, Djin Gie Liem and Julie Mennella
asked kids to taste a variety of juices, each characterized by different
levels of sweetness and sourness.
The researchers found that kids
who’d consumed sour-tasting, protein hydrolysate formulas as babies
preferred higher concentrations of citric acid in their juice (Liem and
Mennella 2002). Kids who’d used a different formula were less likely to
enjoy sour juice.
A similar study found that kids who had
consumed soy-based formulas were more likely to enjoy a bitter-tasting
juice (Mennella and Beauchamp 2002).
And other experiments suggest
that babies fed hydrolysate formulas are less likely than babies on
milk-based formulas to consume pureed broccoli or cauliflower (Mennella
et al 2006)
More garlic-flavored breast milk, please.
These studies indicate that early flavor experiences have
long-lasting effects on a child’s taste preferences. Indeed, some
researchers have suggested that spices transmitted through the placenta
and breast milk are partly responsible for our enduring ethnic food
Does this mean that parents should try to control what flavors their young babies encounter?
might. Research suggests that preschoolers are more likely to eat fruit
if they were breastfed and introduced to fruits early in life (Cooke et
al 2004). And kids who like fruits and vegetables are less likely to be
overweight (Lakkakula et al 2008).
So maybe it’s a good idea for
lactating mothers to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables—not just for
their immediate nutrition value, but for the flavor experiences they
offer babies. And if you want your child to enjoy the enchiladas or
Tandoori chicken served at future family reunions, it makes sense to eat
these foods while you’re lactating.
And baby formula? Maybe someday we’ll see new formulations that mimic the flavors in breast milk.
References: Flavors in breast milk and formula
Cooke LJ, Wardle J, Gibson EL, Sapochnik M, Sheiham A, and Lawson M.
2004. Demographic, familial and trait predictors of fruit and vegetable
consumption by pre-school children. Public Health Nutr. 7(2):295-302
Forestell CA and Mennella JA. 2007. Early determinants of fruit and vegetable acceptance. Pediatrics 120:1247-1254.
Hausner H, Bredie WLP, Mølgaard C, Petersen MA and Moller P. 2008. Differential transfer of dietary flavour compounds into human breast milk. Physiology and Behavior 95(1-2): 118–124
AP, Zanovec M, Silverman L, Murphy E, and Tuuri G. 2008. Black children
with high preferences for fruits and vegetables are at less risk of
being at risk of overweight or overweight. J Am Diet Assoc.
Liem DG and Mennella JA.2002. Sweet
and sour preferences during childhood: role of early experiences. Dev
Mennella JA, Kennedy JM
and Beauchamp GK. 2006. Vegetable acceptance by infants: effects of
formula flavors. Early Hum Dev. 82(7):463-8.
JA and Beauchamp GK.2002. Flavor experiences during formula feeding are
related to preferences during childhood. Early Hum Dev. 2002
Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, and Beauchamp GK. 2001. Prenatal and Postnatal Flavor Learning by Human Infants. Pediatrics. 107(6):E88.
Mennella JA and Beauchamp GK. 1991. Maternal diet alters the sensory qualities of human milk and the nursling’s behavior.
Sullivan SA and Birch LL. 1994. Infant Dietary Experience and Acceptance of Solid Foods Pediatrics 93 (2): 271-277.
Content of "Flavors in breast milk" last modified 2009