A Peek into the Past – Baby Food and Feeding

Who knew a blender could be so profitable?

Baby food is a thriving $1.25 billion industry in the U.S. The average American infant “consumes” 600 jars of baby food by their first birthday. We use the word loosely, as there’s often as much puree on the baby as in the baby. And yet babies in Western Europe go through about 240 jars, and their Eastern European neighbors only taste an average of 12 jars in that first year! (Miriam and Megan’s babies tasted no jars, by the way.)

We can thank Justus von Liebig, a German chemist, for introducing prepared infant foods to the market. He invented what he dubbed the perfect infant food in 1867. His “formula” was a mixture of wheat flour, cow’s milk and malt flour cooked with bicarbonate of potash, a salt containing potassium. Yum.

Babies weren’t always opening wide for an airplaned spoonful of pureed bananas, though. Before von Liebig’s discovery, and even today in some non-industrialized countries, babies were given a homemade mixture of grains and water, animal milk, or broth as the start of the weaning process. In some cultures parents chew or slice fruits, vegetables or other foods and feed them to infants.

The industrialization of food around the turn of the 20th century launched an American love affair with processed food. We increasingly replaced backyard gardens and trips to the local farmer with canned goods, which afforded the luxury of eating fruits and vegetables all year round. This new convenience, along with doctors recommending earlier introductions of solids, paved the way for the birth of a new industry: baby food.

In the U.S., manufactured baby food reached more and more little mouths between the 1920s and the postwar baby boom of the 1950s. Gerber came on the market with strained vegetables in 1928, and Beech-Nut, Heinz, and Libby’s soon followed.

But what baby-food buying moms often didn’t know, because no laws mandated ingredient disclosure, was that commercial baby food included a lot of “others” – salt, sugar, fillers, artificial preservatives, and occasionally, lead and glass shards. In the 1980s and 90s, several major baby food products were recalled, but the industry suffered little. Even as recently as 2010, lead was found in baby food.

The Players
Currently, Gerber, Beech-Nut and Heinz control over 95% of the baby food market (of which Gerber enjoys a whopping 70%). Earth’s Best joined the game in the late 1980s, offering organic jarred baby food and juices, but only reaches 2.5% of the market.

Gerber works hard to stay on top of the baby food industry. In the 1950s, they ran a feel-good campaign touting their rice cereal: “You can’t feed children as well as we can!” Talk about truth in advertising – if nutrition- and taste-deficient rice cereal could match the benefits of breastmilk or garden-raised produce we’d be a much healthier society today.

The Science behind Baby Food
According to Dr. David Bergman, a Stanford University pediatrics professor, “There’s a bunch of mythology out there about [introducing solids]. There’s not much evidence to support any particular way of doing things.”

Parents feel we’re doing our baby best by offering pureed fruits and vegetables one. at. a. time. We interpret guidelines for food introduction as law, especially when coming from a pediatrician. Let’s not forget, however, that general pediatricians are not nutritionists, and their recommendations are often based on outdated and culturally-biased information. And that information was crafted and paid for by baby food manufacturers.

It’s clear to many in the scientific community – not to mention common-sense parents – that the standard early fare may not be best for baby, after all. Rice cereal is among the top suspects. It’s often given in bottle form and is baby’s first taste, aside from milk. But, according to Dr. David Ludwig of Children’s Hospital Boston, a specialist in pediatric nutrition, “These foods are in a certain sense no different from adding sugar to formula. They digest very rapidly in the body into sugar, raising blood sugar and insulin levels.”

There’s a growing movement to get back to basics when introducing solid foods. It’s been named Baby-led Weaning, by British pioneer, researcher and author Gill (pronounced Jill) Rapley. Keep in mind that in the U.K., “weaning” typically refers to the introduction of solids, whereas Americans typically think of it as the end of breastfeeding. So we’ll refer to it as baby-led solids to reduce confusion. Really though, it’s been an unnamed way to feed your baby for millennia.

Let’s circle back to our purpose in writing The Other Baby Book: reviving baby-care practices that are simple, natural, and intuitive. Give your baby what you’re eating. Let him feed himself. Yes, it’s that easy.

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This content was trimmed from the vast archive of environmental and child-friendly parenting practices detailed in The Other Baby Book: A Natural Approach to Baby’s First Year by Megan McGrory Massaro and Miriam J. Katz.

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