Are babies “super tasters”? A food scientist indulges in the secret
Your baby isn’t complaining about lack of seasoning yet.
Imagine if there were foodie babies. These infants would offer nuanced critiques of breastmilk and strained peas, noting the layers of sweet and umami in applesauce. They’d request their squash and bananas gussied up with spiced honey and miso. They’d want Daniel Chang’s latest baby formula and small-batch boutique vegetable mush.
But, there’s a reason why there aren’t foodie babies — and it's the same reason why baby food is so bland. Gary Beauchamp, a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, gets at the science behind why bland is best for babies.
Are babies more sensitive to taste than adults?
First, Beauchamp stresses that there are differences between the scientific definition of taste and the way the word is used colloquially.
“Taste is the sense detected by taste receptors on tastebuds and other structures that are tastebud-like in the rest of the body that detect sugars, salt, bitter things, sour, and umami,” he tells Inverse. The way most people describe taste, however, is a conflation of smell, taste, and irritation. This sense, as most people refer to it, contains a much broader set of sensory processes. The perceptual combination meshes flavors picked up by three distinct sensory systems:
- smell in cranial nerve 1
- temperature and texture in cranial nerve 5
- taste in cranial nerves 7, 9, and 10
Beauchamp says that babies aren’t necessarily more sensitive to taste in the scientific sense. “Is the actual receptor in babies more sensitive to sugar than it is to adults? I don't think there's any good evidence that's true,” he says.
“By six months to a year, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the response of pre-weaning infants to tastes generally is like the response of adults,” he says. If anything they may have slightly exaggerated responses according to preference — especially when it comes to sweet tastes.
When do babies begin to detect different tastes?
According to Beauchamp, at some point in the third trimester, a fetus has functioning taste receptors. In utero, fetuses are exposed to the flavors of their parent’s diet through amniotic fluid, which affects flavor preference later. Just after birth, infants have a well-developed perception for sweet tastes. He says experiments looking at infant facial expressions while feeding and tracking how babies suckle in response to varying sweetness in flavors tell us that infants are “highly attuned” to sweet flavors.
At three to six months old, he says, they begin to detect salty flavors, and will quickly take a liking to the taste in certain contexts.
He says that there’s evidence that parents can influence their future child’s tastes while in utero. What the parent eats can become the foundation of what a child will prefer later.
When should babies try other flavors?
You can try to introduce all five basic flavors to babies as early as possible, but they likely won’t like it unless it’s on the sweet side.
Beauchamp recalls that during World War II, a number of baby foods were made from pure amino acid flavors, which he says adults find a little “off.” The best-known amino acid is monosodium glutamate (MSG), which doesn’t do much on its own but is a popular flavor additive. While these baby foods were useful for colic, which has been shown to respond to amino acids, there’s only a small window when little ones will tolerate the taste.
If babies tried these amino acid-based foods before three months of age, they would happily eat them. But, any later and “babies responded just like adults,” and would refuse them.
This isn’t true of every single flavor. Beauchamp says we still don’t know much about spiciness, which isn’t a flavor but an irritation in response to the compound capsaicin.
While babies aren’t more sensitive to taste than adults, Beauchamp’s impression is that they have greater plasticity in accepting foods. He likens their taste perception to learning languages. Kids “learn them much faster ... and we think the same thing is going on with flavor learning,” he says. “It’s not impossible to learn a new language, it’s not impossible to learn to like new foods.”
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