Test Tube Kitchen

The case of the malodorous infant

Food choices during pregnancy can have astounding effects

March 25, 2011

Case 4.  This was a normal term infant born to a Jewish mother of Iraqi origin. Before delivery, the amniotic fluid was reported to be “yellow and foul smelling”. The baby had a yellowish skin discolouration similar to mecomium staining, and a peculiar odor. Blood cultures from the infant and amniotic fluid cultures were obtained, and antibiotics were administered. On re-examination, the peculiar odour was judged to be identical to that of curry.

This is an excerpt from a report that appeared in The European Journal of Pediatrics in 1985 called “Peculiar odors in newborns and maternal prenatal ingestion of spicy food.” It details four case studies.  In each one, an infant was born, and after doctors and parents had joyfully ascertained that it had two eyes and all the necessary appendages, something else became apparent… the baby smelled a little funky.

Two of the odiferous infants smelled of cumin, one of curry, and one of something called fenugreek (a flowering plant that is a common ingredient in many curries and an herbal remedy for a variety of health conditions). The doctors were concerned because a smelly baby can be a bad sign: strange odors can indicate dangerous conditions such as Maple Syrup Disease, a genetic disorder that causes a buildup of certain amino acids (and the eponymous odor) which can be fatal if untreated.

As it turns out, the stinky newborns weren’t sick: the source of their mysterious odors was pungent, spicy foods their mothers had enjoyed just prior to delivery.  According to the report, “The spices were absorbed from the maternal gastrointestinal tract and transferred to the amniotic fluid, where they were swallowed by the fetus.” It seems that babies can experience mom’s dinner choices directly, and if they don’t like curry, well, that’s just too bad.

Subsequent studies have shown the significance of the mother’s diet on the baby’s environment. In a 1995 study, a group of pregnant women downed garlic pills, then had some smell-testers compare the odor of those women’s amniotic fluid to that of a control group. The testers had no trouble detecting which mothers were garlic-eaters.

And it seems that what the mother eats during pregnancy can actually shape the baby’s future taste preferences. A 2000 paper from the journal Chemical Senses shows that infants whose mothers who ate anise during pregnancy exhibited a preference for the flavor (which has a strong licorice flavor and is not universally liked) after birth. It seems that our tastes start being shaped in the womb (perhaps explaining why we tend to be partial to the foods of our homelands).

However, the strong influence of our mothers’ tastes isn’t always a good thing.

A 2007 study from the British Journal of Medicine showed that pregnant rats fed a “junk food” diet (lots of fats, sugars, and salts) gave birth to babies who showed a preference for a junk food diet throughout life, and as a result, often grew obese. This is especially frightening considering that pregnancy cravings often demand things like ice cream and greasy Chinese takeout.

All in all, mom’s diet seems to affect baby in some intriguing (and amusing) ways. One thing seems certain: if you’re a pregnant woman nearing your due date, you might want to resist those pickle cravings, lest your offspring emerge smelling like a kosher dill.

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