Babies Learn Food Preferences Before Birth

Do unborn babies taste junkfood? (Image: morguefile)

The flavors of food a woman eats while pregnant are present in amniotic fluid and swallowed by the fetus. Later, if she breastfeeds, her baby will taste the foods she prefers via her milk. This may be how cultural food norms are passed along well before a child ever eats solid food.

This was demonstrated in research published in Pediatrics over a decade ago. Filmmakers working on the documentary Carb-Loaded ask, what about today’s diets? Are babies learning to prefer soda, fries, and burgers?

Can unborn babies taste junkfood? 

Fed Up With Food: The Case of the BIG COOKIE

A couple of years ago our local elementary school principal invited a nutritionist from a nearby university to come speak at our monthly PTA meeting. The speaker showed the video embedded above, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map that graphed obesity rates in the United States from 1985 to the present. It is a sobering 30 seconds. Throughout the US, obesity rates currently hover at between 20-30% of the population–with approximately 33% of adults and 17% of children ages 2-19 identified–and the numbers just continue to rise.

The CDC isn’t studying obesity because it is concerned with personal aesthetics. Wherever higher rates of obesity occur, higher rates of diabetes also exist. In 2007, medical costs for diabetes in the US were 116 BILLION DOLLARS. One way to rein in rocketing health-care costs, then, would be to keep kids’ body mass indexes down so that type 2 diabetes had less of an opportunity to develop. 

Knowing this, our school principal had a goal: he wanted to improve the nutritional value of our school’s lunch menu–particularly for children who rely on school lunches as their primary source of nutrition–and he wanted the support of the district parents in order to make it happen. He referenced studies linking nutrition to academic performance as he explained that target number one on his school-lunch hit-list was going to be THE BIG COOKIE (a dessert-plate-sized chocolate chip cookie that was our cafeteria’s number one best-selling item).

“I want to get rid of THE BIG COOKIE and I need your help,” he intoned. “I walk into this cafeteria and on any day I will see kids eating THE BIG COOKIE for lunch. I want to see fewer BIG COOKIES and more fresh fruit on our kids’ lunch trays.”

The meeting immediately exploded into conversation: “My kid loves THE BIG COOKIE!” was heard throughout the room. “He can’t take away THE BIG COOKIE. It’s not fair! First they take away birthday cupcakes, now this!”

As it turned out, the food service that the district had contracted with also loved THE BIG COOKIE–because it offset losses the food service had to take on elsewhere in the menu in order to adhere to federal guidelines. The BIG COOKIE disappeared from the menu for a couple of months but ultimately returned.

Personally, I was filled with moral outrage: Cookies for lunch! Imagine!

Prior to this meeting, nutrition was already a hot topic in our house. Both of my sons  had been diagnosed with  sensory processing disorder by this time–so writing with a pencil was arduous, sounds were too loud, tastes were too sharp, and focused reading resulted in headaches. For us, an unforeseen bonus of the diagnosis was that after hours spent arguing over homework, we could immediately transition into a full-court battle over food, as well…the phrase “picky eaters” does not begin to capture the gagging, the tears, and plea-bargaining that went on nightly as we tried to move the boys beyond the six foods that they were comfortable eating…

Things have steadily improved, but to this day, fruits and vegetables are still a challenge for the 12-year-old (the one with health issues–so: no pressure there). In an attempt to broaden his palate, we’ve tried:

  • Hiding vegetables (per the suggestions of Jessica Seinfeld)
  • Growing our own vegetables (Google “Biblical plagues” for images of our garden),
  • Joining a CSA (so that we could scrape organic, sustainably grown vegetables into the garbage),
  • Getting the kids involved in cooking (preparing food does not automatically lead to eating it yourself, as it turns out. It can, however, lend itself to experimenting with dish soap as a condiment), and
  • Preparing bento lunches.

My son loved the way those bento lunches looked, showed them off to his friends at the cafeteria table, and then regularly threw them out and bought himself A BIG COOKIE for lunch, instead.

Out of everything we’ve tried, though, we’ve gotten the best results from watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution together as a family. For some reason, when I talk about food, I am “nagging.” The same idea coming out of Jamie Oliver’s puckish pie-hole? Is imminently reasonable. After the first season of the show, the child who’d been eating BIG COOKIES for lunch started lecturing his table-mates on the evils of flavored milk–which, frankly, I am willing to call progress.

Fed Up With Lunch by “Mrs. Q.” Image credit: Chronicle Books.

The BIG COOKIE melodrama made me realize how difficult it is to effect lasting, meaningful change in our school lunch programs. In my elementary school, the issue split parents into two opposing factions: those advocating for an edible schoolyard-styled (garden to table) nutrition curriculum were on one side of the debate, and those who felt menu changes would either be too expensive (or a form of Big-Brother-y government-control) sat on the other. Meanwhile, at the same time that everyone else was picking sides, a rogue “bring back the birthday cupcakes” task force was quickly coalescing in the back of the room. PS: I live in a school district where 31% of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch plans, and as we’ve all heard by now, Congress has just made pizza a vegetable.

How do you even begin to create consensus in a situation like that?

If it had existed then, I would have suggested that the PTA sponsor a community book read of  Sarah Wu’s new book Fed Up with Lunch. Wu is a speech therapist in a high-poverty, inner-city Chicago elementary school, and after eating and photographing the lunches at her elementary school for a year and immersing herself in the minutia of school lunch programs, she came up with this wish-list for change at her school:

  1. There should be a salad bar in every school.
  2. Ingredient transparency needs to be a priority.
  3. Processed meats should be removed from school menus.
  4. “Meatless Mondays” should be incorporated into school menus.
  5. Chocolate milk should be removed from schools.
  6. Children should be given 30 minutes of recess every day.
  7. A wellness committee (with the student voice represented) should be started in every school.

This seems like a good set of goals to begin with. Wu’s book is a quick, uncomplicated read but chock-full of statistics and resources. I recommend it unreservedly.

As for our district, we haven’t done too much to change the menus since that first meeting a couple of years ago. One change that I do find helpful (albeit a bit Big Brother-y) is that, this year, kids are being asked to scan their IDs when they buy food from the cafeteria. Parents can then go online and monitor what their children are buying and ideally a dialog about healthy food choices ensues.

We still have a long way to go to get to healthy, balanced, sustainable, menus at the school…but at least now I know when anyone’s eaten a big cookie for lunch.

Transparency in Nutrition Labeling–The FDA Wants Your Input

If you are what you eat, do you have any idea what you are? In an increasing push for nutrition transparency, you’ll soon at least know how many calories you’re taking in, whether you want to or not.

If you live in California, you’re already familiar with this. In 2008 it became the first state to require calorie counts on chain restaurant menus and menu boards. A visit to In ‘n Out Burger feels a little different when you look up to order and see that a Double Double, fries, and shake will total 83% of a day’s allotment in a 2,000-calorie diet. (Download a map of other areas that have attempted or passed such legislation.)

Last year’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act includes a provision that would require restaurants and vending machines with 20 or more locations to give their patrons specific nutrition information, including on drive-through boards and buffets by January 1, 2014. The FDA has written two proposed regulations about menu calorie labels and is inviting public feedback on them through July 5, 2011.

“Americans now consume about one-third of their total calories on foods prepared outside the home,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “While consumers can find calorie and other nutrition information on most packaged foods, it’s not generally available in restaurants or similar retail establishments. This proposal is aimed at giving consumers consistent and easy-to-understand nutrition information.”

Not everyone supports the change. Study results are mixed. Some show that offering the information doesn’t make a difference. One study of parents showed that while they didn’t make different choices for themselves, the did choose lower-calorie meals for their children. The Wall Street Journal cites two other examples, one of New Yorkers in 2009 that showed no influence from menu labeling, and one from Stanford University that showed average calories per transaction fell by 6% among Starbucks customers after calorie labeling started.

And it’s not strictly restaurants. The LA Times reported last week that the National Association of Theatre Owners is particularly displeased with the proposed rules. They feel that because their primary business is providing movies, not food, that their revenue from food (up to 1/3 of a theater’s income) will decrease when customers see that a bucket of popcorn is, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, as much as 1,460 calories, or the equivalent of three McDonald’s Big Mac burgers. They also contain as much as 60 grams of saturated fat.

“If a movie theater is going to be serving people with 1,000-calorie tubs of popcorn, the least they could do is tell people about it,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the center, in the LA Times story. “Just because you happen to be doing something else while you’re eating doesn’t mean that those 1,000 calories won’t stop going to your waistline.”

Movie theaters may see a drop in the number of popcorn buckets sold, but an increase in nutrition transparency can have only good results for consumers. Even if it makes no change for some, for those who do take it into account, it could lead to better choices. (I confess that my earlier In ‘n Out example was from recent personal experience. And I chose to skip the fries when I got the shake.)

The one possible difficulty is in customizable menus where calorie counts can be complicated. Attention to menu design and making the choices as clear as possible (again, increased transparency) to customers can help alleviate that.

Further nutrition transparency is also, of course, only one step in changing how we eat. Calorie intake is but one aspect of a person’s complex nutritional picture. (Under the proposed rules, further information would have to be available on request, but if you’re dedicated to looking, it usually already is.) And just knowing the number of calories you’ve eaten in a day doesn’t help if you don’t know an appropriate total number, or if your sources are not themselves the healthiest.

Arguably, some people would even return to eating out more. Imagine if increasing transparency on this one factor led to an increase in labeling in other ways, not just about vitamins and fiber, but potentially even about things like the sources of your food and how it was produced. The increasing subset of the population that is concerned about such things has turned inward, shopping at farmer’s markets and from CSAs, purchasing locally grown vegetables and meat produced on small farms with friendlier, more sustainable practices. Beyond them, there are even more people who would like to make more such choices but find it difficult. What if when they all sat down to eat in a restaurant, they could know which farm the meat came from and that the vegetables were seasonal and locally produced?

Scientia potentia est.

I Still Give My Three Year Old Baby Food – Review: Ella’s Kitchen Fruit Purees

Ella's Kitchen Fruit Purees & Smoothies

Now before the health nuts and book parents going absolutely haywire, it’s just as the occasional snack. And if you think about it baby food is still just pureed grown-up food.  Plus it’s not like I hand my kid a tiny jar and a rubber covered spoon.  Ella’s Kitchen out of Canada now provides a much niftier way to provide your kids a nutritional snack – in a pouch.

Ella’s Kitchen Fruit Puree is appropriate for all ages.  Technically it is a Stage 1 baby food; so ultra smooth puree with no chunks.  This translates to sheer perfection from age 4 months on up.  It is also organic and all natural.  There’s not a single ingredient on the back panel that I couldn’t pronounce nor would be unwilling to put in my mouth without all its poly-syllabic friends.  Even the people with the jars will slip in a preservative or a pinch of salt from time to time.

It comes conveniently packaged in those cool little pouches that my daughter absolutely loves.  The instructions on the back read “Shake Me, Squeeze Me, Slurp Me” and she takes those to heart.  I refrigerate them for her although if your little one still eats baby food as their only means of nutrition they are totally shelf-stable.

To be fair my daughter calls it juice and not baby food.  That’s a line even I am not willing to cross. (Plus we are at that awkward stage of the pre-school years where anything for babies is bad and she’s a “big girl.”)  I actually discovered Ella’s Kitchen’s line of Smoothie Fruits at Starbucks first.  Those are marketed for all ages although they are still fruit purees.  My daughter loved those so much that I decided to try the baby foods with her.  She gobbles them down too.  I tried them too.  Surprisingly they taste really, really good.  Even the veggie loaded ones.  I admit to trying the strained peas once and those were gross.  And I like peas.  Ella’s Kitchen has mastered the art of fruited veggies so perfectly I’m willing to ingest them, regularly.

All this works out as a fantastic way to trick your picky little eater to slurping down bona fide vegetables.  The pouches fit in all but the most modest purses and they look really cool.  A note of warning, after you twist off the cap they are less the spill proof.  One good squeeze of a freshly opened one and you get a projectile missile of mush.  (I think there’s still some on headliner of my car.)  Then when you get down to the bottom of the pouch it does take just a smidge of dexterity to get the last mouthful out.  You have to squish all of it up to the top before you can get at it. It’s a minor learning curve but not too terrible.

Altogether it’s a great on-the-go, nutritious snack.  And what a conversation starter in mom circles, right?

GeekMom Tips: Meal In A Muffin Tin

small meals for small kids, muffin tin meals, preschoolers don't eat much, how to get kids to eat,
Muffin tin meal. Image by Michelle.

Small kids appreciate things that make them feel larger, from tiny playhouse doorways to miniature portions at dinner. Especially small portions.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember just how little food preschoolers require to meet their nutritional needs. When my four kids were very young I liked to break up the routine by letting them eat from tea party-sized dishes. Teeny tiny ones. They loved the novelty of serving themselves seconds.

But no matter the plate size, my daughter didn’t like her foods touching each other. An invisible speck of potato on a green bean meant she couldn’t bear to put either one in her mouth. So I came up with what I thought was a novel idea. Every now and then I gave each of them meals served in a six-cup muffin tin. It might have a few walnuts, halved grapes, several cubes of cheese, a slice of apple, three miniature rice cakes, and chunks of steamed carrot. None of the foods in their separate compartments touched, and better yet, the kids were so delighted that I was able to introduce greater variety.

I thought I’d made up the muffin tin meal concept but it turns out lots of parents do the same thing. Well not quite the same. They’re much more clever. Check out Muffin Tin Mondays for inspiration.