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Last Updated: Monday, 5 April, 2004, 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK
First foods shape our taste buds
Food preferences start early
The eating habits we develop in the first few months of life can shape our tastes for life, say scientists.

Babies' feeding experiences may contribute to food likes and dislikes, according to a report in the US journal Pediatrics.

Researchers in Philadelphia say eating preferences may develop long before the introduction of solid food.

The findings show that starting good eating habits early in life are essential, say nutritionists.

During the research project carried out at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, babies were split into two groups and given two types of infant formula.

One was a standard milk-based formula, with a "bland, cereal-like" flavour.

Eating habits in the growing child may begin to be established long before the introduction of solid food
Julie Mennella, research co-ordinator
The second was a hydrosylate formula which is treated to make it more digestible for babies.

However, the treatment process gives the formula a bitter aftertaste, and parents who try it tend to think their babies will not like it.

In the study, 53 babies were fed one of the two infant formulas for seven months, starting at about two weeks of age.

Because infants accept hydrolysate formulas readily during the first four months of life, all babies were content, regardless of the formula they were fed.

At the end of the experiment, all the infants were given the chance to drink both types of formula.

The seven-month-old babies who had never had the hydrolysate formula strongly rejected it.

Parent power

In contrast, infants accustomed to the hydrolysate formula appeared relaxed and happy while feeding and drank more of it.

Research team leader Julie Mennella said: "It is often difficult for parents to feed these formulas to their babies because they think it tastes bad.

"These findings reveal if the baby feeds this formula by three months of age, the baby learns to like its taste.

"Because we know that flavour preferences established early in life track into later childhood, eating habits in the growing child may begin to be established long before the introduction of solid food."

Ms Mennella's co-author Gary Beauchamp has carried out research which shows that breastfed babies learn about flavours because they are exposed to different flavours in their mother's milk.

The Monell team suggests this natural early flavour exposure serves to establish flavours of the mother's diet as acceptable and preferred.

British dietician Amanda Wynne said babies and young children have strong taste sensations and she stressed the importance of introducing a variety of flavours at an early age.

She said: "As babies go through weaning, and the toddler stage, the more variety of tastes they have the better, because they are more likely to eat a variety of foods."

Ms Wynne, from the British Dietetic Association, said it is important to stop children dictating to parents what they should be eating.

She said: "If children reject something, then maybe parents could try something else from the same food group of an equivalent nutritional value.

"And don't be afraid to re-introduce a rejected food later on, cooked or presented differently."

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