Science Questions

Are there foods that flavour breast milk?

Sat, 24th Jul 2010

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show How do Ants Count?


William Baker asked:

Hello Naked Scientists,


I really enjoy your shows. I listen to the podcasts while I work the night shift at a hotel here in Fairbanks.


The other day I was talking with a pregnant†friend of mine while walking through the dairy section of a store and I got to wondering; I know that some foods can make†urine smell and so, as another bodily fluid, are there foods that make breast milk smell or taste differently? If women eat a lot of sweets, will their breast milk be any sweeter, or have a higher fat content if they†ingest a large amount of fat?


Well, I love all of your shows. Keep up the good work.


William Baker

Fairbanks, AK, USA


Chris: -  Well we have looked at this as a news item on the Naked Scientists a couple of years ago.  There was a paper we reported.  I actually gave it the exciting title of ďFulsome flavours on offer at the ďbreastaurantĒ.  It was a piece of work done by a lady called Helene Hausner who is from the University of Copenhagen.  It was a paper published in the Journal of Physiology and Behaviour in 2008.  What she did was to investigate this very phenomenon because women, including my wife, who have had babies, often report that the certain things they eat will affect whether or not the baby is very enthusiastic to breastfeed or not.

To get to the bottom of this sort of transmission between food and breast milk flavourants, this group recruited 18 women who were breastfeeding at the time and they got them to give some milk samples before and then milk samples after they gave them some capsules containing various flavourants.  The flavourants they tested were menthol Ė we all know what that is - and also a chemical called d-carvone.  Carvone is the stuff that makes caraway seeds have that very aromatic flavour to them.  They also tested a chemical called 3-methyl acetate which is a banana flavour, and trans-anethole which is a sort of a liquorice taste.  Itís the thing that makes star anise and Ouzo have the liquorice taste the way it does. 

By feeding the women these things and then taking breast milk samples from them for certain amounts of time after, up to 8 to 10 hours, and then measuring the volatiles (the smells) above the breast milk, they could work out roughly how much of these flavourants were getting into the breast milk. It wasnít trivial.  In fact, they found that different times elapsed for different flavours.  The menthol took about 4 to 6 hours to peak, d-carvone and the trans-anethole took about 2 hours to reach peak levels, but the banana flavour, the 3-methyl acetate, didnít come through at all.

The interesting thing was that there was an 80% difference in the levels of these different smells and taste between different groups of the women.  So if you look at one woman and compare another woman for the same flavour, you might detect 80% more or less of that flavour in her breast milk compared with the other woman.  And if you do the test more than once on the same woman, you might find more than 50% variation in the levels of these different flavourants in their breast milk.  What this shows you, therefore, is that it makes a very big difference from one person to the next and it makes a very big difference even in the same person. 

But the bottom line is that things that you eat definitely can end up going into your breast milk, and itís not just small molecules and flavourants; itís also whole proteins.  Researchers back in the Ď70s did studies by radioactively labelling proteins and amino acids, sending them through in the diet, and tracing them out into breast milk, showing that they do then end up going out and going into the baby.  So, people who say their babies do develop tastes for things based on what mumís been eating are absolutely right.

Ben: -   How well developed is a babyís sense of taste?  Do you think that babies can actually taste this?

Chris: -   Itís almost certain that they can.  If you think about it, the baby, when it comes out, is very under-developed and tends to prioritise the development of the systems that enable it to succeed when itís little.  So it tends to develop first the things that will be most essential to survival.  That includes knowing when something is good for you and bad for you, and how to alert mum with a cry.  And babies, if you want to encourage them to eat something, they've got to like what they're eating.  Itís a sort of reinforcing thing, isnít it?  The brain has to say, ďI like this.  I want to do it moreĒ which makes sure the baby feeds regularly.  So itís almost certain that babies do get hooked on these flavours.


Subscribe Free

Related Content


Make a comment

In my country there are food for breast feeding mom , and food not suitable for .
Garlic smell and flavor can secreted inbreast milk.
Spicy food also con in breast feeding mom because spicy flavor can secreted in breast milk. (capsaicin can be found in rat breast milk ... but I'm not sure about human)
and some antibiotic can cause metallic taste in breast milk.
Surasak, Mon, 12th Jul 2010

When I was slightly younger, I didn't like to drink cows' milk in the winter, because it tasted of turnips (rutabagas). I always assumed that's because they were feeding turnips to the cows. Geezer, Tue, 27th Jul 2010

See the whole discussion | Make a comment

Not working please enable javascript
Powered by UKfast
Genetics Society