By Meghan Sloan, MA
Having recently had a baby, I am particularly interested in how
our sense of taste changes during pregnancy. Perhaps you have
heard stories of pregnant women craving unusual combinations of
food such as pickles and ice cream. My own mom stopped dead
in the grocery store with the intense desire for canned beets while
pregnant with me. An informal polling of previously or
currently pregnant volunteers and staff at the museum illustrate a
few common cravings, with ice cream being at the top of the list
but also including fruits, vegetables, pickles, peanut butter cups
and French fries. People say that a mother's body craves what
the baby needs, which was certainly my excuse for eating dozens of
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But does a mother's ability to taste actually change? To be
extra safe, I did not test my bitter taster status while pregnant.
However, it has been reported that some pregnant women
actually show an increased sensitivity to bitter compounds in early
pregnancy, but their preference for bitter increased in the second
and third trimesters (Duffy et al., Annals of the New York Academy
of Sciences, 1998). Perhaps this is to increase the mother's
ability to detect potentially poisonous plants and further protect
the fetus in early development and to diversify the diet in the
later stages of pregnancy. Bitter is not the only taste
affected by pregnancy. According to Campbell-Brown and Hytten
(Clinical Physiology in Obstetrics, 1998) there is a decrease in
salt threshold (or an increased preference for salt) in pregnant
women as well. This makes sense, since pregnant women do, in
fact, have an increased physiological demand for salt.
The mechanism for changes in food intake, metabolism and taste
during pregnancy is not well understood. Early studies
indicate that hormones may be responsible for some of these
changes. It has been shown that estrogen decreases food
intake while progesterone increases food intake (Asarian and Geary,
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biology, 2006).
In other words, we might have hormones to thank for the
stereotypical mom "eating for two." Additionally, when
estrogen levels are high, women have increased sensitivity to
sucrose (Than et al., Physiology and Behaviour, 1994).
Hormones are my new excuse for eating doughnuts!
Another mechanism for change might be in the tongue itself, at
least in rats. Fascinatingly, a rat's taste buds actually go
through morphological changes during pregnancy (Yucel et al.,
Annals of Anatomy, 2002).
These changes in taste and diet are just another example of how
our bodies are amazing, particularly a mother's. The
chemicals in her body change to influence the food she chooses to
eat in order to enhance the development of her baby. Thanks
moms. Happy Mother's Day.