Recently I have been asked a lot about which brand of commercial baby food would I recommend – which jar, pouch or packet would I say was the best? And the honest answer is that I don’t know!
And I’ll explain why.
Last year I went to a nutrition conference in London where a lot of the focus was on commercially produced baby food and an excellent report has been produced by Helen Crawley (a fantastic Dietitian, Public Health Nutritionist, and owner of First Steps Nutrition Trust.
The report entitled “Baby foods in the UK: a review of commercially produced jars and pouches of baby foods marketed in the UK” was eye-opening. This was in terms of really looking into to the development of eating habits in babies and how commercial baby foods fit into this today.
And so, I wanted to take this report and interpret it for you all, so that you can make your own decisions on which (if any!) commercially produced baby foods you want to use as you start your own adventures in weaning.
As the report is quite extensive and this area of infant feeding is so emotive, I am going to be breaking it down into 3 different blogs and we are beginning with a look at the history surrounding commercially produced baby foods.
We first saw the introduction of baby foods (smooth, sieved veg and fruit) onto our shop shelves in the 1920’s and these were launched alongside extensive marketing campaigns with a lot of the focus being on the “scientific benefits” of these mass-produced foods. There was this belief that women required and needed expert scientific and medical advice to raise their children!
Baby food companies funded research in the 1930’s promoting baby food as a good source of nutrients, even though evidence showed that the amounts of nutrients in those foods were lower than in home-made foods. (Bentley, 2014) This promoted the idea that something which is “scientifically prepared” was safer and reliably uniform in composition, which took hours of work away from mothers who were maybe feeling just a little bit overwhelmed with everything which comes from looking after a new baby (and this is still prevalent today!)
In the late 1920’s, babies were weaned at around 7 months and predominantly on fruit and vegetables alongside breast milk. However, with increasing marketing campaigns by food manufacturers who not only influenced the consumer, but the paediatrician also; as well as the voicing of “self-styled feeding experts” (we all know some of those even in 2019!), the advice to wean earlier became the norm.
By 1960 in the US, Gerber, the largest baby food manufacturer was spending $3.8 million on TV advertising alone, of a total advertising spend of $8 million. And so, smooth pureed baby foods became the accepted first food for a baby and we still see this today to a large degree.
This carried on well into the 1990’s where in 1995, Gerber was charged by the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) with producing misleading advertising when they made this claim: -
“4 out of 5 doctors recommend Gerber baby food”
The FCC research into this discovered that 88% of doctors has no opinion on baby food brand at all (Bentley, 2014)
We also need to understand how the different decades have impacted on decisions being made by parents and in the 1970’s, the world was seen as much more “modern” – and jars of baby foods became the fashion even more so. By the 1970’s, American babies were fed an average of 864 jars of baby food in their first year, and 74% of babies were also formula fed (Bentley 2014) So what does this mean for children? Well it meant that these babies became acclimatised to tastes and textures of commercially produced food and milk. Such bland foods meant a limited exposure to a variety of tastes and did not allow children to experience a diverse diet of foods and flavours. We know through much research that limiting this exposure has a large impact on food choices in later life and that many children will then tend to prefer highly processed, bland and sweet foods putting their health at risk of all sorts of complications.
In the 21st century, the baby food sector has changed direction slightly and with the introduction of pouches, which are now marketed as fun, innovative, colourful and covered in aspirational graphics.
Manufacturers market their products to parents with messages related to safety, health, great taste and happiness to appeal especially to mothers who want to do the best for their children.
Qualitative evidence from a survey by Maslin et al suggests that some mothers still see baby food as superior and safer than home cooked dishes. With the increase awareness of allergies also, some parents feel it is safer to just stick to the shop bought foods which are clearly labelled with potential allergens which they think are best to avoid. This however goes against current weaning advice where it is paramount to introduce allergenic foods at 6 months to help reduce the risk of babies developing allergies. And research has shown that those with diverse diets and more exposure to homemade foods are linked to LESS allergenic reaction. (Grimshaw et al, 2014)
Today, public health advice is more around promoting a variety of homemade foods of varying textures and including the introduction of solid foods alongside purees if parents still want to introduce smooth, pureed foods to their babies.
Unfortunately, manufacturers of baby foods have what seems like a never ending pot of money to throw at their marketing and advertising campaigns and so it is likely that we will still these products for years to come.
I think the question is around whether they have their place as part of our children’s weaning journey? Well, I think they can be useful in certain situations or emergencies (going on a plane for example if you are puree feeding), but are they really an alternative or better option to homemade foods – we really don’t think so.
I hope if you follow the next 2 blogs which I will publish soon, you will begin to be armed with the info needed to make some informed decisions when you are faced with shelves and shelves of bright, bold and alluring jars, pots and pouches and will be able to decide what place these alternatives food choices have in your little one’s diet.
Blog 2 will look at the nutritional composition of the convenience foods available in the UK today so watch this space!
Baby foods in the UK. A review of commercially produced jars and pouches of baby foods marketed in the UK. First Steps Nutrition Trust 2017
Bentley A (2014). Inventing baby food. California: University of California Press
Grimshaw KE, Maskell J, Oliver EM, et al (2014). Diet and food allergy development during infancy: birth cohort study findings using prospective food diary data. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 133, 511-519.
Maslin K, Galvin AD, Shephard S, et al (2015). A qualitative study of mothers’ perception of weaning and the use of commercial infant food in the UK. Maternal and Pediatric Nutrition Journal. Journal, 1, 1.