Maternal obesity, as well as excess nutrients, appear to induce permanent changes in the regulation of appetite, metabolism, and behavior in fetuses. Consequently, subsequent generations are more prone to metabolic disorders. Now, researchers from Cornell University in New York describe that, during pregnancy, the mother’s diet would also modify the taste buds of the young. Specifically, the expression of sweet taste receptors. At least in mice.

In the study, published by the journal Scientific Reports and led by Robin Dando, five weeks before mating, female mice began a high-fat regimen that continued throughout gestation and lactation. Instead, mothers in the control group received a normal diet. Once they reached adulthood, the offspring of both groups had similar blood glucose levels, in addition to showing no differences in terms of body weight and the fatty tissue deposits surrounding the sexual gonads.

However, in the face of an appetizing stimulus, such as an aqueous solution with sucrose, the offspring of obese mothers consumed more of the sweet drink; although only the females showed behavioral disturbances, licking the bottles with great avidity.

Analysis of the tongue tissue ruled out morphological and structural alterations of the taste buds that could explain these results. The scientists also did not observe changes in their number, density or size. However, they did detect an increase in the expression of the genes that encode the T1R2 and T1R3 subunits of the receptors involved in the perception of sweet taste.

It should be noted that, after weaning, the mice received normal feed at all times. That is, exposure to a high-fat diet occurred only indirectly, via the mother, during pregnancy and lactation. Thus, the researchers point out that the maternal environment would be sufficient to alter the sense of taste and condition the food preferences of the offspring.

From a public health standpoint, the finding has important implications. The attraction to appetizing but unhealthy foods increases the risk of developing obesity. Therefore, knowing how prenatal factors influence eating behavior could help combat this serious disorder that affects people around the world. At the end of the day, prevention is better than cure.

Marta Pulido Salgado

Reference: “Offspring of obese mice display enhanced intake and sensitivity for palatable stimuli, with altered expression of taste signaling elements”, by E. Choo et al, in Scientific Reports; 10: 12776, published July 29, 2020.