Do “Babies in the Womb” Hate Kale?

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The other day I got a message from my pal Amanda Marcotte, requesting that I look into something that sounded really fishy, and just from the thumbnail and headline I laughed out loud: “Babies smile over carrots and scowl over kale inside the womb.” Like…let’s count the red flags there: first of all, the images are hilarious. The one on the left doesn’t look like a smiling baby, it looks like a fucking Cronenbert nightmare demon grinning because it’s about to eat my soul. But the most egregious red flag is the phrase “babies…inside the womb.” We can argue over whether is actually, you know, journalism but if this IS journalism ABOUT a scientific study, then the correct term is “fetus.” Yes, if you are pregnant and you WANT to be pregnant of course you and your friends and your family will think of it as a “baby,” and that is absolutely okay and great for you, congratulations on your baby. No one is going to insist you call it anything else.

But in science and in journalism, it’s important to be precise because you’re trying to convey accurate information to others, and for that reason, it’s not a baby until it’s OUTside of the uterus. Before then, it’s a zygote, and then a blastocyst, and then an embryo, and then a fetus. And when someone uses those words incorrectly, it can cause confusion AND it can be a red flag that that someone might be anti-abortion rights, like referring to all fetuses as “babies” or even referring to embryos as fetuses, as in “fetal heartbeat” laws, which as I’ve said in the past are neither about fetuses nor heartbeats:

“They call these “fetal heartbeat bills,” which is just perfect because it truly encapsulates how little Republicans know or care about science, because they’re trying to say “this is when the poor little fetus’s heart starts beating” but at six weeks there is no heartbeat. THERE IS NO HEART. THERE IS NO FETUS. At six weeks, it is an EMBRYO. It is the size of a lentil. A few cells are just starting to form what will EVENTUALLY be a heart. You can put those cells in a petri dish and they will show activity. So, “fetal heartbeat” bill? No. Embryonic cardiac activity bill, maybe.”

Anyway, I clicked through to the article, which actually had the more accurate headline “Fetuses in the womb smiled after their mothers ate carrots but scowled over kale, research finds.” I was still a bit skeptical but the article itself is surprisingly good (and avoids the word “baby” throughout). Basically, researchers at the Fetal and Neonatal Research Lab at Durham University filled capsules with either powdered carrot or powdered kale, and then gave them to about 70 women who were 8 or 9 months pregnant. An extra 30 pregnant women didn’t take any capsules as a control. About 20 minutes later, the researchers performed ultrasounds to see in real time how the fetuses reacted once the powdered veggies reached the amniotic fluid. They cataloged the facial expressions each fetus made, and found that in general, the fetuses who got the kale tended to grimace while the fetuses who got the carrot made laughing faces.

That IS a pretty cool result: while logically I know that fetuses at some point develop sensory organs, I don’t tend to think about them actually USING them to become aware of their surroundings while still in the uterus. But scientists know that they develop touch receptors at around 8 weeks (though they probably can’t sense pain until at least 30 weeks). You may know that fetuses can hear, but they can actually hear well enough to distinguish between voices. They can even see a little, because the uterus isn’t completely pitch black, and one study in 2017 used lasers to find that they may prefer light patterns that resemble human faces.

And yes, fetuses also develop the ability to smell and taste and they actively put those senses to use while still in the uterus. This study actually led me on a really weird deep dive and here’s some stuff I learned. Feel free to tuck this info away for use at future parties!

Back in 1995, researchers gave five pregnant women capsules filled with essential oil of garlic and five other pregnant women placebo capsules. Then they collected samples of all the women’s amniotic fluid. Then, in an act of pure scientific depravity, they had an unsuspecting panel of people SMELL THE SAMPLES. The panel was able to sniff out the garlic samples in four out of five cases, suggesting that yes, what we eat changes the smell of our amniotic fluid.

That was step one, and it wasn’t the only study: others have shown that mammalian fetuses in general react to new smells and tastes in the womb, and that human fetuses drink several ounces of amniotic fluid every day. So then step two was figuring out if fetuses care – like, does it change anything? In 2001, researchers asked pregnant women in their third trimester to drink a load of carrot juice four days a week for the last few weeks of pregnancy and then for the next two months of breastfeeding. A control group just drank water, and then there were two other groups who drank carrot juice just during their pregnancy but water after, or who drank water during their pregnancy and carrot juice after.

Once the babies were ready for solid food, but before they had ever tasted anything with carrot in it, the babies were given cereal prepared with either water or carrot juice. The babies who got the carrot juice via amniotic fluid or breast milk fucking LOVED the carrot juice cereal. The water babies didn’t give a shit. 

As some researchers summarized in a 2004 article, many studies have now shown olfaction in fetuses to “modulate states of arousal or sleeping behavior; to elicit emotional behavior; to provide incentive and directional cues to approach and withdrawal actions; to support recognition of particular individuals or settings; to activate prefeeding actions, anticipatory digestive physiology, and to regulate the pace of ingestive behavior; and to contribute to the development of preferences in the alimentary and social domains [4–8]. Some of these

psychobiologic effects of olfaction begin very early and depend on the fetal experience of the organism.”

So yeah, fetuses smelling, tasting, and reacting to things their parent eats is already a known thing! Enter this new study, which only adds to the research by showing the look on the fetuses faces when they experience two very different tastes: carrots, which are a little sweet but otherwise neutral, and kale, which was chosen because it is very bitter.

The researchers, and even NBC News, take pains to point out that the smiles and the grimaces don’t necessarily mean the fetuses “like” or “hate” the tastes, but more likely that a grimace is a natural reaction to an unexpectedly bitter taste. The article cites the lead researcher saying “it’s not known whether fetuses actually experience emotions or dislikes in a similar manner.”

They go on to say “Dr. Daniel Robinson, an associate professor of neonatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who wasn’t involved in the new research, similarly cautioned that people shouldn’t interpret the ultrasound images as showing the fetuses’ happiness or distaste.”

They also take pains to point out that these fetuses were 8 or 9-months along. So, all told, it’s actually a very good, well-balanced article that just happened to have a bad thumbnail and initial headline that shows up when linked from social media.

And, it has one other negative thing: a video clip of NBC’s Today Show hosts discussing this study. And that’s where things really go off the rails.

“Babies in the womb,” “he likes the carrots”…it’s not the best use of language. It’s understandable, because this is the current state of our “news” here in the US (and everywhere, at this point): it’s not news, it’s not journalism, it’s infotainment. It’s casual, it’s fun, it’s your friends hanging out and chatting about what’s going on in the world these days, and your friends don’t take pains to use precise language! Your friends don’t discuss the possible involuntary muscle movements of the third trimester fetus experiencing a bitter chemical! Your friends chuckle at the funny pictures of the babies who hate kale!

Not a big deal, right? It’s just one segment on a stupid morning show that only your grandparents watch, right? Well, let’s just take a look at what they’re talking about over on Fox News: “NBC’s ‘Today’ stuns, delights pro-lifers with segment referring to ‘babies in the womb’

NBC segment about unborn babies reacting to flavors causes social media firestorm”

Cool. Great.

Yep, here’s anti-choice fanatic Lila Rose Tweeting “A “baby” when it makes for a cute news story. A “fetus” when justifying killing them,” conveniently missing the fact that these are A) entertainers, not scientists or serious journalists or progressive activists, talking about B) WANTED fetuses mere weeks from being born. Fetuses are almost never aborted at that point, and when they are it’s because of abnormalities that either threaten the life of the person carrying them or render the fetus nonviable.

Here’s another apparently common reaction: “Conservative actress Patricia Heaton commented, “Great reminder that babies in the womb are human beings who move, feel, react…””

There’s this understanding amongst anti-choice theocrats that liberals, or just anyone who supports a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, think that fetuses are completely inhuman trash before they’re born, completely devoid of anything that resembles a baby human. On the contrary, the reason we know all about the fascinating way an egg can develop into a human being is because of the largely godless, largely liberal population of researchers who have dedicated their lives to understanding the biology of humankind. It’s the Religious Right who have tried to turn the word “fetus” into something inhuman and uninteresting. Scientists, and critical thinkers, understand that there’s no easy and clear division between “clump of cells” and “human being,” because that’s how life works! It’s messy and complicated and fascinating.

A 6-week old embryo showing activity in a petri dish, a 27-week old fetus seeing light and dark, and a 34-week old fetus reacting to bitter amniotic fluid is all fascinating, and no supporter of abortion rights should dismiss any of it. But none of that gives that zygote, embryo, or fetus the right to take over my body or my life when I do not want an eventual baby. And none of it should prevent someone who DOES want a baby from getting an abortion when things go terribly, tragically wrong.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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