Women can give their unborn children a taste for healthy food by eating lots of vegetables while pregnant, scientists have discovered.
A series of studies has shown that what a woman eats during pregnancy and breastfeeding can significantly influence the type of food that her baby will prefer when being weaned.
The notorious difficulty of teaching very young children to eat healthy green vegetables rather than sweet, fatty food can be overcome if mothers realise how important it is to eat well themselves, scientists said.
"The good news is research shows that babies and their palates can learn very early on about good food, even before their first mouthful," said Julie Mennella, a developmental biologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia.
"Even before a child eats their first mouthful of food, they are learning about flavour through the amniotic fluid in the womb, and later through their mother's milk," Dr Mennella said.
"The message is, eat the healthy food that you enjoy and when the baby is old enough to start weaning, they will already be familiar with those flavours," she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.
One study involving 46 babies aged between six months and a year found that those whose mothers drank carrot juice while pregnant or during the first three months of breastfeeding ate almost twice as much carrot-flavoured cereal as those whose mothers did not.
"It was the first time the babies ate solid food, and it shows how we are primed by our earliest exposures," Dr Mennella said.
Even bottle-fed babies can quickly learn to like the taste of vegetables if they are exposed to the flavour while weaning.
"Regardless of whether a child is breast or bottle-fed, it can still learn as soon as it starts to wean. If they are repeatedly exposed to fruit and vegetables early on, then they soon begin to accept these foods," Dr Mennella said.
"Eat a variety of healthy foods that you enjoy while pregnant and breastfeeding and once your child starts eating solid foods give them repeated opportunities to taste these foods so they can grow to learn to like its tastes."
Babies are programmed to like sweet, fatty foods because these flavours are associated with high calories, whereas many vegetables taste bitter to prevent them from being eaten. (© Independent News service)