There is a sensitive period of time when an infant’s brain is most receptive to forming a preference for bitter flavors like green vegetables. Multiple studies have shown that from birth to 4 months old, babies are more open to trying and learning about different flavors, and, just as importantly, that this “flavor learning” lasts into adulthood.
In one study, infants were divided into two groups with very different tasting formula. The first group was fed only cows milk formula, and the second was fed only protein hydrolysate formula. Hydrolysate is a type of formula that is designed for babies who can not tolerate regular cow’s milk. The flavor of hydrolysate formula is extremely unpleasant to those who are unfamiliar with it. It has bitter and sour taste as well as a nauseating smell and aftertaste. In the study, infants less than 4 months old readily accepted the hydrolysate formula and even consumed it willingly. In marked contrast, infants 5-6 months old who had never been exposed to hydrolysate strongly objected to the flavor and refused to accept it. Additionally, it has been shown that infants who have had early experience with hydrolysate, showed a preference for its flavor at 5-6 months and even later in life at 4-5 years of age.
What does this mean for new mothers?
For mothers who are breastfeeding, it means that what you eat matters. The flavors of the foods you consume are transferred to breast milk and will influence the foods your child will accept and like during weaning, as a toddler, and well into adulthood.
To increase your chances of raising a child who will eat healthy for life (and hopefully avoid the health problems associated with being overweight or obese), breastfeeding moms should eat three servings of vegetables everyday. Vegetables in each day’s servings should include at least one bitter green, such as green beans, broccoli or spinach.
A consistent rotation of vegetables is ideal. Repeated exposure and variety are both important. Research has shown that it is the combination of repeating and alternating flavors that leads to a preference for specific foods and an increased acceptance of new foods in the short term and later in life. This is the core premise behind early flavor learning and improved Flavor Intelligence.
For mothers who are formula feeding exclusively, it is unfortunate that the singular flavor profile of today’s infant formulas does not provide an opportunity for early flavor learning. However, there is an old French custom that new moms may want to consider*.
Moms in France have taken to adding a small amount of vegetable puree to formula to gradually introduce their little ones to vegetable flavors in the weeks and months prior to starting purees during weaning.
Flavor learning in this way takes place via baby’s bottle or with a small spoon. In giving this a try, vegetables to include are carrots, green beans, spinach, broccoli, zucchini (peeled and seeds removed), leeks (whites only), and pumpkin. Baby endive, baby chard, and green peas can be used in limited quantities, but only if served ground extra fine due to their fiber content.
Of course, a baby’s first 4 months of life is not the only time during which flavor learning takes place. It’s important to note that flavor learning continues all throughout the life span and early flavor learning starts in utero (four months after conception) and extends until about 20 months of age. Our ability to experience and learn new flavor preferences is ongoing and, while it contains definite sensitive periods, continues throughout life.
To read more about flavor learning and Flavor Intelligence, and how to “imprint” a preference for the flavors of healthy foods on your child’s mind, click here.
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