It's Official: Your Kid's Hatred of Kale Started in the Womb

Research shows developing fetuses grimace in response to kale and smile for carrots. It was caught on a sonogram.

Doctor pointing the a screen showing a fetus sonogram
Photo: Oleksii Syrotkin/Stocksy

Kale may have risen to superfood status in the 2010s, but fetuses aren't impressed. The babies-to-be do appear to be fans of carrots, though, at least according to a new study in Psychological Science.

To conduct the study, scientists from Durham's Fetal Neonatal Research Lab in England split 100 people between 32 and 36 weeks pregnant into three groups. They had 35 participants consume a capsule with a powdered version of one medium carrot, and 34 participants took one that with the powdered equivalent of 100 grams of chopped kale. The other 30 pregnant people didn't take anything.

After 20 minutes, researchers conducted 4D ultrasounds. Fetuses exposed to the kale looked like they were grimacing or about to cry, while those whose parent-to-be ate a carrot seemed to have smiles on their faces.

What gives?

Nadja Reissland, a co-author of the study and the head of the Fetal and Neonatal Research Lab at Durham University, told NBC News that the kale-induced faces, "might be just the muscle movements which are reacting to a bitter flavor."

Though the research gives a rare real-time glimpse into how fetuses react to flavors in the womb, it's not the first of its kind. A 2019 review found limited but consistent evidence that a pregnant person's diet can influence the smell and taste of the amniotic fluid and may increase acceptance of these foods during infancy. An older 2001 study found that infants whose parents ate carrots while pregnant or lactating were less likely to display a negative facial expression when trying carrot-flavored cereal. Unlike the new study, the research from 2001 did not use ultrasounds to see the fetus' reaction.

"It was really amazing to see unborn babies' reaction to kale or carrot flavors during the scans and share those moments with their parents," lead researcher Beyza Ustun, a postgraduate researcher in the Fetal and Neonatal Research Lab, Department of Psychology, Durham University, noted in a press release.

This research doesn't mean people should load up on carrots or avoid kale. Instead, Ustun hopes the research can help inform parents of how a nutritious and diverse diet during pregnancy may help reduce picky eating in infancy.

"As a result, we think that this repeated exposure to flavors before birth could help to establish food preferences post-birth, which could be important when thinking about messaging around healthy eating and the potential for avoiding 'food-fussiness,"' Ustun said.

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