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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The ugly truth about commercial baby food

If you've been to a couple of baby showers, chances are you have encountered the horrible game of "guess the baby food." Jars without labels are lined up in front of guests. Guests dip a spoon in, taste, cringe, and then try to fathom what alleged combination of foods produced that hideous bland unappetizing flavor. Whenever I have done this I always thought there was some mystical but highly researched reason for this...that babies were odd creatures with utterly different taste sensibilities. This is baby food myth #1.

In the West we generally live in a world where most folks think of "chicken" as "boneless skinless breasts." We get so accustomed to the commercial retail form of our foods that sometimes its easy to forget there ever was another form. So when I thought of baby food, I thought of it in a jar with a smiling Gerber baby. Surely to make your own baby food must be as complex as souffle. Worse even, so nutritionally sensitive and precise it would be like making a souffle that also cured cancer. This is baby food myth #2.

These myths are sometimes called the baby food mystique: "Makers of baby food encourage a mystique about their products. They want parents to think that commercial baby foods have special properties that make them particularly appropriate, if not essential, for infants." --Cheating Babies

The Center for Science and Public Interest released a report entitled Cheating Babies: Nutritional Quality and Cost of Commercial Baby Food. They find that commercial baby food companies routinely dilute the nutritional content (and value) of baby foods with fillers such as starches and water.

The mystique around commercial baby food grows out of the earliest efforts to market baby food to the American public in the 1920s through the 1950s: "Food companies capitalized on "modern" notions of scientific feeding and the superiority of manufactured items over those homemade." (Food Timeline). The iconic Gerber line of baby food was launched in 1928, putting a homey face on commercial baby food. Spread through ads in women's magazines, the smiling baby face promised modern convenience and appealed to the mid-20th Century housewife.

The pictures of fresh produce on the jars today don't tell you the whole story of what's inside.

"Gerber and Heinz dilute many second- and third-stage fruits and vegetables with water and starchy fillers and sweeten them with sugars. That practice greatly reduces the nutrient density of those foods compared to the pure fruit or vegetable product." These fillers include flour, corn syrup, corn, sugar or chemically modified tapioca. Yum, sounds delicious right?

Another problem with the practice of diluting nutritious food with fillers, which the report authors do not raise, is that several of the most common fillers are potential allergens. Corn and Wheat can both potentially cause allergic reactions in small children, and some recent scientific studies suggest that long term allergies, such as the allergy to wheat (Celiac disease), may be reduced by avoiding contact with those foods before babies are one year old (see Scientific American). So by feeding your baby commercially prepared baby foods loaded with fillers, you may be inadvertently exposing them to large quantities of potential allergens.

Researchers found that adulteration was more common with the second and third stage foods than with the stage 1 foods. Adulteration was so rampant that a "2.5-ounce jar of first-stage bananas or first-stage prunes actually contains more fruit than the 4-ounce jars of second-stage products that are adulterated with water and chemically modified starch." A 4 ounce serving of fresh apricots (such as the kind you could make yourself at home) contains twice the potassium and Vitamin A as the commercially prepared Gerber apricots, and approximately four times as much as the Heinz brand jarred apricots.

Any bride knows (or learns quickly) that just adding the word "wedding" to something automatically doubles its price. Turns out the same is true for "baby." The report finds "parents often pay more than double for baby food fruit juices and applesauce. Gerber Graduates diced fruits and vegetables are also more than twice the price of comparable products available in the canned goods aisle." This is a finding that Consumer Reports echoes as well.

And all those fillers and water add up to greater profits, "Gerber and Heinz replace up to 70% of their second- and third-stage fruits with water and then thicken them with chemically modified tapioca starch. They also add starchy fillers to all their regular second- and third-stage dinners."

American babies consume an average of 600 jars of baby food by the time they are a year old (compared to 240 jars for Western European babies). The study suggests that new parents spend an average of $300 on baby food by the time baby reaches 12 months. And remember, babies don't begin to eat solid foods until they are 4 to 6 months old. Parents who want to purchase commercially prepared organic baby food that has few or no fillers pay considerably more, often $1-1.50 per jar of baby food.

The bottom line?
It is important that baby's first foods be non-allergenic and easily digestible, but commercial baby foods do not have the market on healthy baby food cornered. They became popular in the middle of the 20th Century thanks to ingenious marketing efforts that encouraged the baby food mystique amid general embracing of all things "scientific" as superior to "folk" versions. But the fillers added to commercial baby food dilute its nutritional content, and they are there for profit, not the science of baby nutrition.

Although I am convinced that home made baby foods are nutritionally superior to most commercial options, and are objectively cheaper, in general I think the world has enough judgment in it already, and mothers take more than their fair share. If you are already frazzled and tearing your hair out trying to be a good mom and you just don't think you can manage to make baby food, breathe deeply and relax. Cause you'll get no judgment from me. I think it is cheaper by a long shot and quicker and easier than I ever thought, so I'd love to see a lot of skeptics give it a try, but if it isn't for you don't worry. There are a thousand other ways to show your kid love, and she certainly isn't going to flunk out of calculus in 18 years just because you didn't puree her baby food at home.

If you want to give homemade baby food a try, check back next week for the second post in my baby food series, where I talk you through the entire process of making your own cheap, fast, easy, organic baby food at home. And remember those horrible tasting commercial jars? The baby food you make at home tastes just like, well, food.


Gini+Eric said...

GREAT post! I have known for years that I was going to make my own baby food. I'm trying to get pregnant now, so your information is going to be highly valuable to me in the sort-of-near future. :) Thank you! (and thank your little one too)

Erin said...

Gini: Congrats on reaching that stage in your life! Best of luck with your efforts to get pregnant. It is a wonderful (though occasionally uncomfortable) and wild ride. Glad to hear you liked the post.

diva@ The Sugar Bar said...

amazing post. very informative. and now i'm feeling quite relieved and fortunate that my mum didn't really put us on baby food. home-cooked, mother-prepared foods all the way.

Amber said...

Don't those fillers have to be put on the ingredient label? When I pick up a jar of say, green beans, the ingredients are: green beans, water.

Since ingredient labels are required to list the ingredients from most to least, I could assume that the jar is at least 51% green beans and at most 49% water. Am I just missing something because I haven't yet moved to mixed flavors?

Erin said...

Amber: yes, it is my understanding that all ingredients have to be listed and listed in descending order of quantity of content. The report indicates that roughly half of all the jars contain fillers even when the "name" does not indicate they have starchy fillers. But yes, it is correct that you certainly may have a jar of green beans with only beans and water. If you are interested you can look into the data of the report first hand.

Even where there are no starchy fillers, the quantity of water used can also dilute the nutrients contained. All brands will include some water, as will most things you make at home (at first when making Stage 1 foods). Different brands used different amounts of water, suggesting that there is no single scientifically based standard of proportion of water based on "good medicine" but that we might have to consider profit as a motive.

Indreni said...

Thanks for the post! I enjoy making baby food at home--it is pretty easy and basic, and my son seems to like it a lot better than the jarred stuff. When I don't have time to make it myself, Earth's Best Organic makes some nice options, like the peas and brown rice, and lentils and rice.

Anonymous said...

One additional note on water content -- when you make your food at home and are trying to thin a puree, you can use the same water used to steam the veggies/fruits, which will contain nutrients leached in the steaming process.

Olga said...

One great article! I loved reading it. I have a baby boy who's six months old, and I feed him with home made purees. It's so easy, anything that I cook for him I just use our blender to make a puree and he loves it. There really isn't anything complicated in preparing food for babies :) Will be waiting for you next articles to see if I can learn anything :)

Anonymous said...

It's funny how most people, when asked, will claim that they are immune to the effects of advertising. Yet, when shopping for something for baby to eat, they will usually just pick up what is conveniently labelled "baby food," thus proving that no, they really can't think for themselves. Hopefully more people will start to think about what actually goes into processed baby (and grownup) foods and consider whether all those additives and nutritional deficiencies are really worth the price of convenience. Eating quality food is the most important proactive thing you can do for your health, and of course your child's.

Caroline said...

Thank you. My baby is getting ready to start his first food. I am planning to make all of his food. Your research is extremely helpful to me, a concerned parent.

Cooking Canuck said...

My second daughter is 4 months old and I will be making my baby food once more. I could not feed my kid something that smelled like canned cat food... after reading this even more reason not to.

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