Taste preferences start as early as in the womb and continually evolve - but certain moments are more crucial than others, and acting early can firmly establish appreciation of healthy foods, according to Sophie Niklaus, researcher at the Centre des Sciences du Goût et de l’Alimentation (Centre of Taste and Food Science) in Dijon.
Speaking at the Méditerranée à déguster festival in Montpellier, Niklaus spoke of the Opaline cohort study which followed 300 babies from 2005 to 2011.
“We looked at all the different stages of development, the first being the sensory environment in the womb by monitoring maternal food intake in the last trimester, and while breastfeeding. Then we looked at food during weaning and finally at the family table where socialisation begins.”
Taste starts in the womb
While Niklaus said that babies were receptive to the aromas of the amniotic fluid and can even ‘memorise’ them, the researchers found no correlation between certain vegetables eaten during pregnancy and the baby’s later appreciation of that vegetable.
For Niklaus, the most crucial stage is weaning: “This is the first direct oral contact that a baby has with food. It is a sensory explosion of aromas and flavours – the baby discovers not only aromas but also textures of food.”
Exposure is key
“We found that the longer a child is breastfed - more than 6 months - the more he or she will appreciate the umami taste which is tasted through glutamate receptors. This is because breastmilk contains glutamates.
"This demonstrated the main mechanism at work regarding developing taste preferences: the more we are exposed to something, the more we will learn to appreciate it,” she said.
In order to quantify taste preferences in babies, the scientists gave them bottles of plain water, salty water, sweet water, bitter and sour water and measured the amount consumed – the more the babies the drank, the more they appreciated the taste.
At three months babies liked both the sweet and salty solutions yet by age one there was a clear preference for salty.
The researchers also took into account facial expressions. Interestingly, while sour and bitter flavours were less appreciated this did not seem to affect the amount consumed in the early stages – most babies made a grimace indicating distaste yet continued to drink.
The researchers found that the earlier a variety of vegetables are introduced the more likely babies are to like them – with development happening so quickly that even one month can make a difference: Babies at five months appreciated a greater variety of vegetables than those at six months.
Overall, five to seven months was the most favourable period for discovering new flavours as even bitter and sour were globally appreciated.
The four functions of food
According to the Opaline researchers the most obvious function of food is to provide nutritional sustenance but it is not the only one: Food also brings us sensory pleasure, it shapes our identity through regional cuisine and it provides an important vehicle for social interaction.
“It’s impossible to imagine any kind of celebration in any society without food. We share food and eat together, and this is important for children and their dietary development.
"The emotional context in which food is eaten can impact taste preferences,” said Niklaus.