One of the funniest and most enjoyable things ever is watching your baby's reaction to trying new foods. The internet is flooded with videos of infants trying things like lemons, peas, or sweets for the first time and their faces are seriously so priceless. But what are they actually experiencing? Wouldn't it be fun to be able to go back to that time and experience things for the first time? Turns out, there are some things that happen in your baby's brain when they eat something new, and it's pretty fascinating.
While I didn't get it on video, I'm pretty sure I have my son's reaction to trying puréed carrots for the first time in my head forever and it does not disappoint. If you think about it, it must be so strange trying food for the very first time, like, literally ever. Up until that point, the only thing your baby has ever eaten has either been breast milk or formula, which both have a creamy and sweet kind of taste. So imagine going from a 100 percent creamy and sweet diet to something as different as peas in a jar. Shock, right? So, to take a deeper look into what actually happens during this experience, I interviewed Melanie Potock, a feeding specialist and author of the book Adventures in Veggieland, to understand what exactly happens in a baby's brain when they eat something for the first time.
Taste & Flavor Are Two Different Things
Potock tells Romper in an email, "Taste and flavor are two different sensations in the mouth. Taste refers to five basic tastes: salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and savory, or 'umami.' When food enters [the] baby’s mouth, receptors on the tongue (taste buds) communicate the taste sensation to three unique cranial nerves and the brain then interprets what is detected." In other words, the nerves on the tongue communicate to their brain what it is they're eating and how it tastes.
Potock continues, saying that "breast milk is also high in fat, which some scientists consider to be the sixth taste." But what is the difference between actual taste and flavor? Is there a difference? "Taste, when combined with the sense of smell, equals flavor," according to Potock, making the combination for the two essential in order to actually experience flavor.
Smell May Have Something To Do With It
Potocks says that "[a] baby first experiences the isolated aroma of solid food as it passes beneath his nostrils before entering his little mouth." This makes the sense of smell a major factor in the food experience. And when it comes to baby food, we all know those baby food jars full of goopy peas don't smell too great. Now, this is where it gets super interesting and science-y. "The odor molecules travel up to the nose to a specific type of tissue that houses the olfactory sensory neurons, and those neurons communicate the sensation to the brain," Potock explains. "Those same odor molecules have also entered the mouth, along with the food, and begin to mix together as baby squishes his tongue and swallows. Now, the combination of molecules travel up the back of the throat to the same olfactory neurons and the brain has a brand new 'combo' aroma." Yes, I know. Lots of science talk. Don't worry, I'll explain.
The combination of the smell and the sensation in the mouth create the taste experience. That being said, Potock also points out that the brain will begin to compare to "previous aromas," making it possible for your baby to develop taste preferences. Potock makes a great point when she says, "The more flavors we expose our babies to, the more information their brain stores and utilizes for future foodie experiences. That’s why it’s so important to present a variety of new solid foods as baby grows because it will expand baby’s repertoire of favorites over time." So true, right? Imagine what you can make now that you know this information. Such a great way to try and pave a smooth road for a variety of food preferences and avoid picky eating. Although, sometimes you just get what you get when it comes to kids, right? But still, such useful and practical advice.
Learning To Eat Is A Developmental Process
One of the most important take-aways from my interview with Potock was the idea that we should think of eating as a "developmental process". She makes a great example when she says, "We wouldn’t expose baby to just carpet when learning to crawl. Instead, we help baby learn to tolerate crawling in tickly grass, on chilly tile floors, and over soft cushions in the play room so their brain can learn about all the sensations while crawling. When they are ready to learn the more advanced gross motor skill called 'walking,' they have already experienced various textured surfaces and just have to concentrate on being upright and putting one foot in front of the other." Such a great way of looking at learning to eat.
Now that we can better understand on a deeper level what the food experience is like for our little ones, we can take this knowledge and apply it during meal times. Knowing that previous positive experiences can impact their future taste preferences, we can apply this by exposing our children to many different tastes and aromas, which can help set them up for food success in the future. Which is exactly what we want, right?