Julie Mennella, Ph.D.
Monell Chemical Senses Center
Dr. Mennella’s research program focuses on the role of early experiences on food, flavor preferences, and growth and the effects of alcohol and tobacco on women’s health and infant development. Current research studies focus on the following areas: 1) how maternal diet alters the aromatic profiles of amniotic fluid and mother’s milk and how such early flavor experiences affect food preferences during weaning and childhood; 2) elucidation of sensitive periods in flavor learning and developing evidence-based strategies to promote acceptance of fruits and vegetables among children; 3) determine the behavioral and physiologic mechanisms by which diet composition affects energy balance and growth in infants studying the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of alcohol in women; 4) determine effects of age and genotype on taste sensitivity and preference across the lifespan; 5) determine efficacy of strategies of reducing bitter taste in children and impact taste has on medication compliance and acceptance; 6) effects of alcohol and tobacco use during lactation on various aspects of women’s health, lactational performance, and mother-child interaction; and 6) determine how parental drinking and smoking impact on the hedonic response to the sensory properties of these drugs during childhood and adolescence. In addition to her research, Dr. Mennella founded and then directed a program at the Monell Center from 1991-2007 that encouraged under-represented minority high school and undergraduate students to pursue careers in science and medicine. Dr. Mennella is the recipient of grants from the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and is on numerous committees related to infant nutrition and child health.
The flavor world of childhood: Basic biology and health implications
Julie A. Mennella, Ph.D.
Early life exposures – both biological and social – explain trajectories of health in adulthood decades later. In this talk, I will highlight findings from the behavioral sciences that reveal that children naturally prefer higher levels of sweet and salty tastes and reject lower levels of bitter tastes than do adults. Thus, their basic biology makes them especially vulnerable to our current food environment of processed foods high in salt and refined sugars. If this is the bad news, the good news is that a variety of early flavor experiences, beginning even before the child has his or her first ‘taste’ of food, can shape preferences. Flavors from the maternal diet are transmitted to amniotic fluid and mother’s breast milk, and experience with such flavors can shape and modify food preference and have far-reaching effects on behavior. This emerging body of knowledge from human and animal model research suggests that early life experiences with healthy tastes could have a significant impact in addressing many of the chronic diseases that plague modern society and that derive in large part from poor food choice, dictated by our taste preferences.