Uncovering flavors in breast milk: Dr. Julie Mennella’s flavor learning research and implications

In case you haven’t heard, artificial baby milk increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, obesity and certain kinds of cancer. Formula-fed children are also at risk for contracting a long list of illnesses that might otherwise be squashed by immunities in breast milk. Among the many differences between artificial baby milk and breast milk, there is one big difference that is often overlooked: flavor.

In my Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) training, I remember learning that children were likely to nurse longer if their mothers had recently consumed garlic. Breast milk never ceases to amaze me; especially when it’s garlic-flavored!

As a member and director emeritus of the Monell Science Apprenticeship Program, a non-profit institute in Philadelphia, Dr. Julie Mennella has been conducting flavor learning research for more than two decades.

Dr. Mennella’s research “focuses on the development of food and flavor preferences in humans and the effects of alcohol and tobacco on women’s health and infant development.”  (Retrieved from http://www.monell.org/faculty/people/mennella).

“Every baby is living in their own sensory world when they are breastfed,” Dr. Mennella says. “It’s unique food that that mom has made for that baby.”

Differently, artificial baby milk although available in many varieties, presents static flavor.

“That constant flavor doesn’t reflect the culture they will grow up in,” Dr. Mennella says of formula-fed children.

Greater implications 

Unfamiliarity with the flavors of one’s culture and consequential unacceptance of certain foods has considerable implications.

As Dr. Mennella and Dr. Gary K. Beauchamp put it in their 2011 article entitled Flavor Perception in Human Infants: Development and Functional Significance, “both before and after birth, humans are exposed to a bewildering variety of flavors that influence subsequent liking and choice.”

Their research suggests that taste and olfactory systems operate in utero within the amniotic fluid and that breast milk serves as a sort of flavor bridge to the time of weaning.

Because the food we consume directly impacts our health, it is important to note that an infant who develops a “taste” for salty, sweet and fatty foods over fruits and vegetables will have a greater risk for diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and some cancers according to Mennella’s and Beauchamp’s Flavor Perception in Human Infants article.

Dr. Mennella explains that the breastfed baby exposed to an abundance of flavors is at an advantage once weaned.

“What moms eat are typically what babies end up eating,” Dr. Mennella says. She highlights the importance of a varied diet for pregnant and lactating women.

A breastfed baby experiences textural variations such as viscosity and mouth coating as well so “breastfeeding provides an even richer variation in oral sensory stimulation” as stated in Flavor Perception in Human Infants.

Dr. Mennella says formula companies are only able to add flavoring to follow-on formulas at which point she says it is too late to stimulate flavor detection.

Benefits a plenty

Flavor learning research does not only point to future variation in diets. In The chemical senses and the development of flavor preferences in humans published in Hale and Hartmann’s Textbook of Human Lactation, Dr. Mennella cites the research of Frederick D. Provenza which shows that “learned food preferences are transmitted from [mammalian] mothers to their offspring, resulting in greater biodiversity.”

Provenza’s research also suggests that flavors transmitted through breast milk allow mammalian offspring to know what food is safe to eat through familiar flavoring once weaned.

More to discover, more to learn

Recently, Dr. Mennella has become interested in growth differences between breastfed and formula-fed infants.

“I’m shocked at how little we really do know,” she says.

Healthy Children Project’s upcoming 17th Annual Conference in Orlando will be an opportune time for Dr. Mennella to summarize some of the findings of basic flavor learning research and present some unanswered questions.

“How do we learn from basic biology to educate both mom and health professionals about the mystery of what’s happening early in life?” she asks. “We’re beginning to have evidence that it’s setting the stage for many things to come.”

Mennella, J. A. (2007). The chemical senses and the development of flavor preferences in humans. In P.E.Hartmann & T. Hale (Eds.), Textbook on Human Lactation (pp. 403-414). Texas: Hale Publishing.

Beauchamp, Gary K., and Julie A. Mennella. “Flavor Perception in Human Infants: Development and Functional Significance .” Digestion . (2011): 1-5.

Center for Breastfeeding then, now and later

Karin CadwellAs a relatively new Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC), I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Dr. Karin Cadwell, Executive Director of the Healthy Children Project (HCP). HCP trained me for my CLC exam back in November 2011 and the organization has trained thousands of other lactation care providers.

Dr. Cadwell was so engaging in our chat, I could have listened to her insight all day.

She told me that breastfeeding support should not mirror car salesmanship. Today it’s hard not to know that Babies Were Born to Breastfeed thanks to advertising initiatives like i want a strong baby and Beating the Booby Traps. But simply touting benefits isn’t going to help moms in need or increase breastfeeding duration rates.

“We have to get out of the sales business and get into the service business,”
Dr. Cadwell says.


A Democratic Mindset

Dr. Cadwell is committed to the justice of all mothers and babies and works to provide competent, evidence-based care to help breastfeeding dyads.

She says that breastfeeding support should not be based on the ability to pay outrageous prices for it or because one’s healthcare provider just happens to be interested in breastfeeding.

“I have a more democratic point of view,” she explains.

A Challenge to Overcome

Karin meeting nursing staff of Hangzhou #1 Hospital.

Dr. Cadwell stresses the importance of collaboration.

“The next challenge for breastfeeding advocates is to leave our pioneering spirits behind and work as colleagues,” she says. “We’re passed that part of our history where people don’t believe in the benefits of breastfeeding.”

HCP staff and friends visit the #1 People’s Hospital, Hangzhou.

Dr. Cadwell recalls a recent plane ride where she reviewed her notes for an upcoming lecture. Catching a glimpse of the breasts across her computer screen, the man next to her curiously questioned her profession.

After she explained, Dr. Cadwell says the man proceeded to list at least 25 advantages of breastfeeding.

“We have to catch up to that,” Dr. Cadwell says of what is becoming common knowledge.

The Missing Piece

Decades ago in the 1970s, there was a massive growth in independent, consumer-based breastfeeding information. Around this time, Dr. Cadwell was working as a nursing mothers’ counselor and eventually a trainer for the Childbirth Education Association of Greater Philadelphia (CEAGP). But because CEAGP objectives were so consumer focused, education was not offered to healthcare providers.

“It seemed to me that was a missing piece,” Dr. Cadwell says.

Eventually, Health Education Associates, Inc. (HEA) decided to sponsor breastfeeding workshops for nurses and doctors and did so for almost 20 years. In 1992, after HEA downsized to only a publishing company, Healthy Children Project, Inc. was born.

The Center for Breastfeeding, a practice center offering lactation services and classes to local mothers on The Cape, Islands and South Shore, precipitated from HCP.


Education to Help Families

 A major focus of Healthy Children Project is the Lactation Counselor (CLC) Training Course, a competency based program that equips participants with the essential skills and knowledge to help families achieve their infant and young child feeding goals.
“Healthy Children’s philosophy is that education comes before practice,” Dr. Cadwell explains.

She describes the CLC course as transformational learning. She cites students reporting learning about the magnificent functions of their bodies and reconstructing the way they think of themselves as women in the world. (She sums up my experience perfectly).

Sometimes nurses don’t enroll in the course by choice but end up getting hooked, Dr. Cadwell explains.

“That’s the best experience of all,” she says.

International Collaboration

Healthy Children faculty members and colleagues have been working alongside the Egyptian Lactation Consultant Association and the Egyptian Ministry of Health to rejuvenate the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) for over 10 years.

Egypt was one of the first countries to establish BFHI in their public hospitals. Alas, with no sustainability built into the system, Baby Friendly practice began to fail. Healthy Children and its colleagues worked with UNICEF to develop a national survey by visiting almost all of Egypt’s 27 governorates. The national survey helped to come up with a sustainability plan.

Research for the Masses

HCP faculty member Anna Blair introduces nursing students to her research on sore nipples.

Healthy Children Project also designs and implements collaborative investigations to solve breastfeeding dilemmas.“Our research focus is very practice oriented,” Dr. Cadwell explains. “It aims to question the basic tenets of what we do.”

While it’s sometimes easier to  focus on microcosm issues, Dr. Cadwell says, “We really work to focus on the things where most people can be helped.”

HCP faculty member Kajsa explains the Magical Hour to fascinated nursing students.

She cites reasons behind why women get sore nipples and how to most effectively implement skin to skin.
Changing peoples’ practices through research will gradually allow mothers and babies effortless breastfeeding experiences.”We don’t have to be aggressive,” Dr. Cadwell says.

At the end of October, Dr. Cadwell and several of her colleagues spoke at the Normal Labour and Birth Conference at Hangzhou Normal University in Hangzhou, China.

Anna Blair, Karin Cadwell, Cindy Turner-Maffei, Kajsa Brimdyr & Kristin Stewart – so excited to attend the conference!

The conference offered a wonderful opportunity to share and to learn from those working to optimize birth and breastfeeding outcomes all around the world.

Dr. Cadwell, Kristin Stewart and Cindy Turner-Maffei spoke on developing effective teaching programs for healthcare professionals and parents to assist in uninterrupted skin- to- skin implementation. Drs. Anna Blair and Kajsa Brimdyr addressed their findings in newborn tongue behavior as it relates to epidural fentanyl exposure during labor, and Dr. Blair presented a poster on sore nipple research conducted in Latvia.

Welcome to Our Milky Way!

Welcome lactivists, skeptics and information seekers of all kinds! I am Jessica Fedenia and I’m so thrilled about the opportunity to explore and celebrate lactation care workers’ subjects of interest and the individuals, particularly Certified Lactation Counselors, who work to help families and communities achieve healthy infant and young child feeding goals. This space is dedicated to sharing the projects and organizations they create, the knowledge they uncover and discover and the experiences they undergo. We’ll also spotlight the role of other professionals in lactation management and research based strategies.


As a relatively new Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) and young mother who initially struggled with breastfeeding even with access to a wealth of reliable information, I wholeheartedly support the strategies set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF)to increase breastfeeding initiation and duration. Honestly, if I had it my way the clouds would rain breastmilk and we all would hold hands dancing cheerfully over puddles of remedial liquid. That said, I still believe there is significance in considering all 6.9 billion (roughly) sides of the story.


So, come along to learn and share but please note: thoughtful, insightful engagement in our online community is encouraged. Critical, intelligently crafted discussion is welcomed. Blatantly offensive, threatening, vacuous comments including personal attacks will not be tolerated and will be removed immediately.