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Studies

Eating carrots during pregnancy could make fetuses happy

An analysis of 4D ultrasound scans showed how fetuses responded after being exposed to flavors from foods eaten by 100 pregnant women.

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A 4D ultrasound of a baby reacting to the flavor of carrots. (Durham University via SWNS)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Eating carrots during pregnancy could make babies happy in the womb, according to a new study.

The nutritious root vegetable appeared to cause developing fetuses to laugh. Kale, on the other hand, appeared to have the opposite effect.

An analysis of 4D ultrasound scans showed how fetuses responded after being exposed to flavors from foods eaten by 100 pregnant women.

Lead author Beyza Ustun, a Ph.D. student at Durham University, said: "A number of studies have suggested babies can taste and smell in the womb, but they are based on post-birth outcomes while our study is the first to see these reactions prior to birth."

"As a result, we think this repeated exposure to flavors before birth could help to establish food preferences post-birth, which could be important when thinking about messaging around healthy eating and the potential for avoiding 'food-fussiness' when weaning.

"It was really amazing to see unborn babies' reaction to kale or carrot flavors during the scans and share those moments with their parents."

The international team studied how the fetuses behaved just a short time after ingestion by the mothers.

Those exposed to carrot or kale showed more "laughter-face" or "cry-face" responses, explained Ms. Ustun.

The findings published in the journal Psychological Science sheds fresh light on the development of human taste and smell receptors.

A 4D ultrasound of a baby, taken as a baseline before flavors were introduced. (Durham University via SWNS)

What pregnant women eat might also influence babies' preferences after birth and help establish an appetite for fruit and vegetables, including carrots.

Humans experience flavor through a combination of taste and smell. In fetuses, this may happen through inhaling and swallowing the amniotic fluid that surrounds a developing baby.

Co-author Professor Nadja Reissland, also from Durham, said: "Previous research conducted in my lab has suggested 4D ultrasound scans are a way of monitoring fetal reactions to understand how they respond to maternal health behaviors such as smoking, and their mental health including stress, depression and anxiety.

"This latest study could have important implications for understanding the earliest evidence for fetal abilities to sense and discriminate different flavors and smells from the foods ingested by their mothers."

The mothers, aged 18 to 40, were scanned after 32 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. They were given a single capsule containing about 400mg of carrot or kale powder around 20 minutes before.

It was all they consumed for at least an hour. The women also did not eat or drink anything else containing carrots or kale that day.

Facial reactions showed exposure to just a small amount of carrot or kale was enough to stimulate a reaction, compared with control fetuses not exposed to either.

Co-author Prof Benoist Schaal, of the University of Burgundy, France, said: "Looking at fetuses' facial reactions we can assume a range of chemical stimuli pass through maternal diet into the fetal environment.

A 4D ultrasound of a baby reacting to the flavor of kale. (Durham University via SWNS)

"This could have important implications for our understanding of the development of our taste and smell receptors, and related perception and memory."

The findings might also help guide the information given to mothers about the importance of taste and healthy diets during pregnancy.

Researchers have now begun a follow-up study with the same babies post-birth to see if the influence of flavors they experienced in the womb affects their acceptance of different foods.

Co-author Prof Jackie Blissett, of Aston University, said: "It could be argued repeated prenatal flavor exposures may lead to preferences for those flavors experienced postnatally.

"In other words, exposing the fetus to less 'liked' flavors, such as kale, might mean they get used to those flavors in the womb.

"The next step is to examine whether fetuses show less 'negative' responses to these flavors over time, resulting in greater acceptance of those flavors when babies first taste them outside of the womb."

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