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A Postpartum Food Tour Around the World                                                          

The “Golden Month”, “first forty days”, and “fourth trimester”; these are all ways of marking the first weeks after giving birth. But depending on where you live, the way you honour this time may look very different. Here are four traditions, customs and rituals from around the world to nourish new mums and celebrate new life.

I’m Dutch, born and raised in The Netherlands. When I was six years old, my baby brother was born. It was the most normal thing in the world for my twin sister and I to bring double-baked, hard, dry biscuits called ‘beschuit met muisjes’, or ‘rusk with mice’, to our classmates at school to celebrate the birth of our baby brother. The biscuits would be covered with margarine and sprinkled with white and blue sugar-coated anise seeds (in the case of a baby sister, they would have been white and pink).

Since then, I have moved to Belgium, welcomed a baby in 2021, and am pregnant with our second. My partner is Belgian, and although we were only born 120 kilometres apart, he had never heard of this quirky Dutch custom. For him, the most normal thing in the world is to give your visitors back home a small bag of sugar-coated almonds: ‘suikerbonen’, or ‘sugar beans’. He also remembered that some 20 years ago, when he interned as a dietician in a Belgian hospital, it was common practice to serve newborn mums a brown beer. While the Belgian beer idea isn’t supported now, back then the theory was it could help to support milk production, apparently for its calming effect on the mother and vitamin B content.1 Different times...

Now that I know that the customs we thought to be entirely “normal” were only standard on our little patch of the globe, I decided to go on a quest to the Benelux and beyond to see where these traditions stem from.

1. Beschuit met muisjes (The Netherlands)

Let's start at my own cradle. Although today, those rusks with sugar-coated anise seeds are a treat for visitors, the tradition stems from the belief that anise seeds stimulate the mother’s milk production. Newborn mothers have been eating anise seeds since the end of the Middle Ages. From the eighteenth century, anise seed was no longer only eaten by the mother but became a treat for maternity visitors. The adults received anise liqueur, and for the children, there were sugared anise seeds.2 From the 19th century, the ‘mice’ were served on rusk, and later, they became pink or blue to commemorate the newborn’s gender.

According to Dutch traditions expert Ineke Strouken, we call the sugar-coated seeds mice because they resemble them (somewhat). The mouse is also considered a fertility symbol because the animal reproduces so quickly.2

As for the connection between anise and milk production, there may be some truth to the tales. Anise (Pimpinella anisum) seeds contain a phytoestrogen called anethole - a plant substance with a structure related to the female hormone estrogen. Today, anise is a purported galactagogue (a milk booster). You can find the seeds in some tea mixtures promoted to increase milk supply, often combined with fennel; however, few clinical trials support this use.3

Beschuit met muisjes. The anise in the muisjes symbolized fertility and was thought to stimulate lactation.

2. Sugar beans or baptise sugar (Belgium)

Going further south, in Catholic Belgium and a handful of other European countries like France, Italy and Greece, hosting families give visitors a small bag of either sugar or chocolate covered almonds. For good luck, the bags should contain an odd number of nuts. The almonds symbolise fertility and new life since they were one of the first trees to bloom after winter.4 Unlike the milk-boosting anise seeds, the almond seems more symbolic than being directly linked to lactation or health benefits.

While it’s hard to confirm the exact origins, some believe the sugared almond came from Roman baker and confectioner Julius Dragatus. It’s believed that he made the very first dragee, or sugar bean, in 177 B.C., when he accidentally dropped an almond into a jar of honey. He liked it so much that he gave it as a gift at the birth of his son: the beginning of a Roman tradition of eating baptismal sugar at births and weddings.5

In Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium where I live, the dialect for the baptismal sugar is ‘kinnekeskak’, meaning children’s poop or droppings. In the past, children were told the sweets came from the diaper of the baptised baby. For this, a second diaper was wrapped around the child where the baptismal sugar was hidden. After the baptism, the sugar beans were dropped on the floor and looked like they came from the baby's diaper.6

In Belgium, baptise sugar beans are given around the birth or baptism of a child as a symbol of fertility and new life. 

3. Miyeok-guk (South Korea)

When I was about to go on maternity leave, pregnant with my first son, a South Korean colleague sent me a recipe for ‘miyeok-guk’, wakame seaweed soup. She told me that Korean mothers traditionally consume this seaweed soup after childbirth as it contains a high source of iodine, as well as iron, and other minerals. Iodine is essential for the production of thyroid hormones that are necessary for proper growth and development of the nervous system and metabolism.7 This long-standing soup tradition in South Korea stems from an early eighth-century document from the Tang dynasty, alluding to Koreans serving seaweed to postpartum women after seeing whales feeding on seaweed to treat their own postpartum wounds.8

However, there has been controversy regarding the effects of excessive postpartum iodine intake on the health of mothers and infants. One bowl of miyeok-guk contains up to 1,705 micrograms of iodine, almost six times the daily recommended iodine intake for breastfeeding women.9 The World Health Organisation recommends a nutrient intake of 150 µg/day for women of childbearing age, increasing to 250 µg/day during lactation.10 Since Korean mothers in the postpartum period often eat the soup multiple times a day, the dose easily rises to over ten times the recommended dose.8 In fact, a 2021 nationwide representative survey of more than 1,000 postpartum Korean women showed that the average daily iodine intake was 2945.6 μg, almost 12 times the daily recommended dose.9

Miyeok-guk is a seaweed soup, consumed in South Korea as a way to boost iodine levels after birth.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) adopted 200 µg/day as an adequate intake, and 600 µg/day as an upper intake level for adults, including pregnant and lactating women.11 An excess of iodine can lead to thyroid enlargement or overstimulation of the thyroid gland.7

4. Katlu Ladoo / Gond Ke Ladoo (India)

Another colleague with Indian roots and a fellow mum sent me recipes for Katu Ladoo and Gond Ke Ladoo, among a long list of other traditional recipes she consumed during her ‘golden month’. For Gujaratis, the golden month is actually one month, one week and one day postpartum. I decided to stick with the Ladoo varieties she sent me, which means something like ‘a ball-shaped sweet’.

The first recipe she gave me, ‘Katlu’, is a traditional Gujarati preparation containing a lot of cane sugar, ghee (clarified butter), and whole grain flour. But it also contains ‘Battrisu’, a powder with 32 ayurvedic herbs, like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, saffron, ginger, black and white pepper and nutmeg. The balls are given to lactating mums, believed to stimulate milk production and give strength. Utmost care is taken in preparing these ladoos, usually made in large amounts by mothers and grandmothers for their daughters. Containers full of Katlu arrive on a special day after birth.12

Learn more about what Ghee is and how it’s made

The second recipe she gave me, Gond Ke Ladoo is sometimes described as a ‘superfood for lactating mothers’. It contains ghee and whole wheat flour as main ingredients as well, but also raisins, nuts, dried fruits and ‘gond’.15 Gond is an edible gum extracted from the sap of the Acacia plant, also known as Arabic gum, mainly produced in Sudan. The edible gum is one of the most important medicinal plants used in traditional or alternative medicine - used to treat high cholesterol, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and other conditions.16,13

In Europe, we also know Arabic gum as the additive E414. Together with gelatin, pectin and modified starch, it’s among the most used gums in sweets. In traditional wine gums, it’s the major component at concentrations of ∼50%.14 This is why, due to the conflict in Sudan, it was recently in the news that producers of sweets (e.g. M&M’s and chewing gum) and cola fear a shortage of Arabic gum.15

But what about the medicinal powers? Gond, or Arabic gum, is a source of dietary fibre that can dissolve in water. The gum tends to make people feel full, so they might stop eating earlier than they otherwise would. This might lead to weight loss and reduced cholesterol levels, but no good scientific evidence supports this or other uses. Also, there isn't enough reliable information to know if Arabic gum is safe when pregnant or breastfeeding.16 So it’s good to stay safe and not eat the gum by the kilo.

Gond Ke Ladoo, is sometimes described as a ‘superfood for lactating mothers’. It contains ghee and whole wheat flour as main ingredients as well, but also raisins, nuts, dried fruits and ‘gond’.

The best way to stimulate your milk supply

From Anise and Arabic gum to fenugreek and fennel, many postpartum food traditions I’ve come across in this modest exploration seem to stem from the belief that these foods are galactagogues, or milk boosters. It makes sense, considering many of these traditions started long ago when formula was non-existent. But even today, there is a lot of richness in the traditions and care in the form of food surrounding the maternity bed. Who doesn’t want to be fed warming soup and bliss balls after having done a top sports performance: giving birth to a baby? 

However, as far as the science says, no foods or herbs have been reliably shown to increase milk production. It seems that breastfeeding your baby consistently is the best way to increase your milk supply - and eating a healthy balanced diet, combined with rest, of course.17

After my first delivery, when I stayed for a few days recovering at a Belgian maternity ward, they had sent the custom of serving me a brown beer to get me relaxed and start the milk flowing to the land of fables. Instead, they handed me a little plastic coffee spoon. I had to consistently, manually stimulate my breasts and collect the colostrum - the first yellowish milk. Drop by drop, I fed my son until the milk became white, and the quantity increased with his stomach size. The ‘mice’ I left for our visitors.

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References
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  2. Edwards (1996) JSTOR. “The Sugared Almond in Modern Greek Rites of Passage”. 01 November 2023.
  3. Chrystal (2021). “The History of Sweets”. 15 Novemer 2023.
  4. De Tier (2021). “kindjeskak”. instituut voor de Nederlandse taal. 03 November 2023.
  5. “Jodium”. Voedingscentrum. 01 November 2023.
  6. Choi (2017). “Is Seaweed Soup Detrimental to Mothers and Newborns?”. Korea Exposé. 01 November 2023.
  7. Lee et. al. (2021). “Nationwide Representative Survey of Dietary Iodine Intake and Urinary Excretion in Postpartum Korean Women”. Nutrients. 01 November 2023.
  8. Brough (2022). “Improving Iodine Status in Lactating Women: What Works?”. Current Nutrition Reports. 01 November 2023.
  9. European Food Safety Authority (2014). “Scientific Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for iodine”. EFSA Journal. 01 November 2023.
  10. Bhatt (2018). “Katlu – a traditional recipe for nursing mothers”. Route2Roots. 01 November 2023.
  11. Lifestyle Desk (2022). “Here’s what makes gond ke ladoo a ‘superfood for lactating mothers’”. Indian Express. 02 November 2023.
  12. Williams (2003). “GUMS I Food Uses”. Encyclopedia for Food Science and Nutrition. 04 November 2023.
  13. Baumers (2023). “Vrees voor tekort aan ingrediënt voor snoep en frisdrank: ‘Nog geen alternatief’”. 06 November 2023.
  14. “Gum Arabic - Uses, Side Effects, and More”. WebMD. 06 November 2023.
  15. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/foods-to-increase-milk-supply
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