A Walk Down the Baby Food Aisle.

By Olivia Mayer, RD, CSP, IBCLC
Anyone remember what their first bite of food was? Probably not. But I bet your mom does.

My mom came for a visit recently, and during one of our (many!) grocery store trips, we walked down the baby food aisle, which was overflowing with an overwhelming amount of brightly colored choices. Her eyes immediately widened and she remarked, “There was only one brand I can remember when you were a baby.” (The brand she remembered was Beech-Nut.)

Good nutrition was always a big priority in our household when I was growing up and in many ways shaped me and led me to my career choice as a pediatric dietitian. Navigating an intimidating territory like what to feed your kids is something I feel passionate about and am grateful to help parents with. Not to mention the pleasure I find in nourishing my own kids with the healthiest choices.

But back to my mother’s comment. It got me thinking: have baby foods really come such a long way?

Commercially available baby foods started to be sold in the early 1900’s and became popular for convenience and their perceived safety of modern manufacturing processes. (1) The first products had only one major ingredient—like peas or prunes—which was pureed with water to create a smooth consistency.

Over time, blends of two or more fruit (apples and bananas) or vegetables (peas and carrots) made their way to the shelves. Packaging transformed from cans and glass jars to plastic containers and pouches. The labels almost always had an image of a healthy baby or a picture of the solid form of the food that was pureed in the package, and sometimes both.

But were these baby foods created with well-balanced nutrition in mind? And, let’s cut to the chase—are today’s baby foods?

The short answer is no.

The packages lining the shelves in today’s baby food aisles (and now in the refrigerated section, too) probably feature plenty of vegetables. They may give you a false sense of security and confidence. But if you look at the ingredient label, there’s very little veggies actually in the food. Most are still based on apple and peach purees, with maybe a calories-worth of spinach. Sometimes the first ingredient listed is water! These baby foods don’t provide meaningful amounts of the micronutrients that the developing brain needs, especially during the most critical windows of development in the first 18 months; nutrients like choline, zinc, and vitamin E.

There’s a huge focus on organic, farm-fresh, non-GMO produce, BPA-free plastics, sustainable farming and manufacturing practices; and there’s so much right with that. But it gets the most important part wrong: none of these ensure that your baby is getting the nutrients they need for healthy brain development, during the windows when they’re needed most. And once that window closes after 18 months, there’s no going back.  The foundations of those brain cells are set for life.

A natural, organic, farm-fresh, mashed banana in a BPA-free pouch is still, nutritionally, a mashed banana.

My mom and I each made some small batches of baby food from scratch as new mothers. But not often, and they were simple recipes. It was usually a single-vegetable puree, like carrots or green beans.

Still, I used to dream about making my own baby food, and I have many families who seek advice on how to best make baby food for their little one.

For me, making my own baby food wasn’t practical. It basically meant taking on an additional part-time job. It can absolutely be done, but carving out the time to do the research and planning, to get good ingredients, and to cook those ingredients in the ways that get the most nutrients out of them was more than I could take on. The reality of returning to work, getting pregnant with my second son when my first son was only two years old, and the active, social lifestyle we enjoyed meant I just didn’t have enough time. And the fact is, that it wasn’t what was best and going to support my baby’s brain development when they needed it most.

If you can make it work, homemade is a wonderful way to do it. These pages at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Homemade Baby Food Recipes are great resources to help you get you started.

But in my case, I became “that mom” standing in the baby food aisle thoroughly inspecting every label. Fortunately, I could draw on my knowledge as a pediatric dietitian. What I did—and this has always been my advice to parents—is look at the Nutrition Facts label on the package. I looked at the ingredients, the order of the ingredients, and the nutritional composition. What was most important to me—and this should be most important to you, too—was baby food with actual food as the first ingredient that had decent amounts of protein—not just carbs and sugars—and that had good vitamin and iron content.

I couldn’t always find what I hoped to find, but I would go for the best that was available at that time.

I have to admit I’m a little jealous of moms who are just starting their little ones on solids, because things are finally changing. I know I sound like a nutrition dork when I say the future of baby food is exciting. It is, though!

Reading an ingredients list

The list of ingredients on a Nutrition Facts panel is always in order of how much is in the food. The first ingredient makes up the biggest part of the food, and the last ingredient the smallest.

There’s an emerging trend in baby food to finally get the nutritional science we’ve long known about into the food to support growing brains and bodies.

When you see lots of nutrients like protein, selenium, copper, zinc, folate, and so many more on the back of the package, you can feel confident giving that food to your baby, especially during this critical phase of brain growth and development that only happens once.

And trust me, I know there are days when hardly any of that delicious, nutritious food actually makes it “down the hatch” and most of it turns into nutrient-filled face paint. It’s okay, keep trying! Doing the best you can to feed your family with love, good food, and good nutrition is the most anyone could hope for.

Oh, and my first solid food as a baby? Pureed green beans! YUM!

References

1 Bentley, Amy. Inventing Baby Food: taste, health, and the industrialization of the American diet. 2014.