Open Access Week 2022: A Conversation with Beyza Ustun

As part of our recent Open Access Week celebrations, Beyza Ustun, a final year PhD student from Durham’s Psychology Department, kindly spared time to discuss her recent research with the Open Research Team. Beyza’s PhD research focuses on the effects of prenatal flavour exposure on fetal and infant behaviours.

Your recent piece of research ‘Flavor sensing in Utero and Emerging Discriminative Behaviors in the Human Fetus’, has recently gained a lot of attention on the news, blogs, and social media. How would you summarise this piece of research in a nutshell?

We have shown the first direct evidence that babies react differently to various smells and tastes while in the womb by looking at their facial expressions. We found that the “laughter-face” facial reaction was significantly more often seen when exposed to carrot and the “cry-face” reaction when exposed to kale. This shows that fetuses in the last 3 months of pregnancy are mature enough to distinguish different flavours transferred from the maternal diet.

Image shows the “change in the fetus’ expression to “laughter-face” after tasting carrot.

What made you choose kale and carrot flavours?

We wanted to use two different flavours, bitter and non-bitter. Kale was chosen because it conveys more bitterness to infants than other green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, or asparagus. Carrot, which has a different flavour profile from kale, was chosen because postnatal studies showed that carrot is transferred to the amniotic fluid.

What are the potential implications of this research?

By now, we all know the importance of a healthy diet for children. There are lots of healthy vegetables, unfortunately, with a bitter taste, that is usually not appealing to children. The evidence of this study suggests that there is potential to change infant and ultimately child preferences to healthy green, often bitter tasting vegetables before they are born by repeated maternal consumption of these healthy vegetables during pregnancy.

How have you found the media attention and social media engagement following the article’s publication?

As a research team, we have expected the research to attract public attention, at least in the UK. Because this is the first study in the literature to show direct evidence of fetal flavour sensing.  But the research has gone beyond the UK, and we believe OA has enabled us to reach the public from different countries.

This article was published open access under a CC BY-NC licence – have you found there to be any benefits of publishing open access?

Publishing our research with open access provided for the academic and non-academic communities a talking point on radio, TV, newspapers, social media, podcasts, and blogs around the world.

How would you like to see the open access landscape change or develop in the future?

I hope we can publish and access all research by defaulting open access in future. The OA should be a default not only for publishing papers but also should be open so that everybody can access statistical analysis software programmes.

What’s next for your research?

We are now in the follow-up stage of this study. In this stage, we asked the mothers who had undergone ultrasound scans at 32 and 36-weeks’ gestation to consume further kale or carrot flavour capsules once a day during their last three weeks of pregnancy. We visited the mothers and their new-born babies when they were around one month old and videotaped babies’ reactions to kale, carrot, or water smells. The analysis of these videos is still ongoing, but we expect to see fewer cry-face reactions to kale if fetuses were exposed to kale in the womb because of their habituation to the bitter taste before they were born. We plan to apply for grants to have a longer-term follow up including breastfeeding, weaning periods and toddler stage to establish whether being exposed to the bitter and non-bitter flavours will affect healthy eating habits.

Where can we follow your work?

You can follow my work on the Durham Staff profile page, on Twitter or on ResearchGate.

Read the original research here:

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