The study, published in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, examined the effect of a fatty maternal diet on receptors in the hearts of new-born rats, including those which detect certain flavours.
Taste receptors have only recently been shown to exist outside the mouth, at sites including the heart, where both bitter and umami - or savoury - receptors have been identified, explained the research team led by Professor Margaret Morris from the University of New South Wales.
While their function is not yet clear researchers believe they may play a part in nutrient detection and regulation of appetite, they added.
Morris and her team found fewer bitter taste receptors on the hearts of 19-day-old rats with obese mothers, while umami receptors in the heart were unaffected. Morris described the findings as an ‘exciting’ result.
"We know that a range of maternal factors including diet can influence foetal development, but this is the first study to examine changes in the expression of taste receptors in the heart," said Professor Morris.
"This may be an important finding linking taste preferences or nutrient availability and cardiovascular health."
Mother rats were fed a high-fat diet including pies, cakes, and biscuits and for six weeks before mating and throughout gestation and lactation. Their offspring were then compared with those born to a control group on regular rat feed.
Half of each group were also allowed a running wheel to explore the impact of exercise.
Morris said ‘limited effects’ were observed, with similar cardiac changes seen in the exercising and non-exercising obese groups.
In addition to having fewer bitter taste receptors in their hearts, the offspring of obese rats also had larger hearts with fewer angiotensin II and beta-adrenoreceptors ,which are important in the regulation of blood pressure and cardiac activity.
Morris and colleagues also noted that previous studies have a shown a link between chronic overeating and the fight-or-flight nervous system response.