Re(s)training our taste buds?

From Brian Mossop at Scientific American:

Our diets are unhealthy, that much is clear. Now, an increasing number of scientists and physicians wonder if our propensity for unhealthy, obesity-inducing eating might be tied to the food choices made during our first weeks and months of life. Indeed, the latest research indicates that what we learn to like as infants paves the way for what we eat as adults. If true, we might be able to tackle the obesity epidemic in a new and more promising way, one that starts with the very first spoonful.

Today, unfortunately, most of those early lovin’ spoonfuls contain more sugar and salt than is nutritionally wise. A recent study in the Journal of Public Health found that 53 percent of processed baby and toddler foods lining supermarket shelves (at least in Canada) have an excessive number of calories from simple sugars, and 12 percent of them have too much sodium. The authors, noting how overindulgence on both of these nutrients is tied to cardiovascular disease and diabetes, suggest that early exposure to overly sweet or salty meals could promote a taste for these unhealthy ingredients in the future….Hydrolyzed casein is somewhat bitter, a little sour and oddly savory. But it is the aftertaste that does people in. (Beauchamp says that many adults throw up the first time they try it.) The team discovered that if babies had consumed hydrolyzed casein early in life, their perceptions of flavor changed. Early exposure to the predigested formula caused babies to eat more savory, bitter, sour or plain cereal than infants who were brought up on breast milk or regular milk-based formula. Not only did the babies familiarized with hydrolyzed casein formula consume more off-tasting foods, but they also seemed to thoroughly enjoy their meal, making fewer disapproving facial expressions than the standard formula or the milk drinkers.

“If you feed a baby this formula before he or she is four months of age,” Beauchamp says, “most accept it readily. They seem to like it. [But] if you begin the feeding at five to six months of age, by that time, something has happened.” By that age, the window of influence has closed, and eating the hydrolyzed casein formula is not enjoyable at all. “They hate it just like you or I [would],” he notes.

As occurs with other senses, it seems that Beauchamp has uncovered a sensitive period in early development for flavor preferences. Feed an infant a food in the first few months, and they might just become a fan for life; miss that window, and the liking for foods with pungent flavors—no matter how good for you—might be much more of a fight. …

Despite the unresolved issues they point out, both Swanson and Drewnowski agree that new, innovative approaches to battling obesity are needed. “Clearly, whatever we are doing now isn’t working,” Swanson adds. And what makes Beauchamp’s theory so appealing is that it lays out a different plan of attack for metabolic and cardiovascular disorders: Instead of telling people what they shouldn’t consume, it may work just as well if researchers and physicians can instead find ways to train the senses to prefer healthful foods in the first place.

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  • Joe Canner

    The paradox here, as Swanson notes, is that pediatricians recommend breast-feeding only (or, if necessary, breast-feeding and then formula) for the first four months, which doesn’t give opportunity for babies to develop a taste for healthy food. I hope the experts figure out how to resolve this conundrum before subjecting young mothers to yet another whiplash-inducing breast-or-bottle type of controversy.

  • Susan N.

    Joe, I was reading a related news article that made a case for babies’ taste preferences being influenced in utero and in the mother’s breast milk. Neither of my children ever tasted formula. One child is a very healthy (and adventurous) eater. The younger is a picky eater, and a junk food junkie. The older one was far more willing to try new foods and developed a diverse palate. The younger one, right from the get-go rejected new tastes and textures and nutritional intake had to be skillfully negotiated! I would not choose formula over breastmilk, assuming a healthy mother who has the ability to spend the time nursing her baby. So many more benefits of breastmilk than synthetic formula… Isn’t it interesting that in every culture the babies naturally adapt to the foods particular to their “tribe?” I’ve always marveled that small children in India eat spicy foods from an early age. Pregnant mothers, nursing mothers, parents of babies and toddlers…maybe need to model healthier eating for their children? We love our fried and processed foods and soda pop, don’t we?!

  • Joe Canner

    Susan, I was thinking of that, too. I know from my wife’s breastfeeding adventures that the mother’s diet can affect baby’s digestion, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there might be some taste/flavor sensitization issues as well.