I often get asked by fellow mum friends whether I use commercial baby foods and what I think of them. My answer is similar to when I get asked if I take my children to McDonalds; yes, but only at times when I really need the convenience. McDonalds tends to be reserved for motorway service stations, and commercial baby foods are for when out for long periods with difficulty keeping homemade foods cool.
I started reviewing the manufacturers websites to put together some information on commercial baby foods, but then happily realised someone else has recently done this for me! First Steps Nutrition have recently published a report entitled ‘A review of commercially produced jars and pouches of baby foods marketed in the UK’. Dr Helen Crawley who led the review is a dietitian and public health nutritionist with over 30 years experience in public health nutrition across the lifespan. Alongside Susan Westland, she has produced a very comprehensive and well-evidenced resource. In case you didn’t have the time to read all 94 pages I thought I’d summarise it for you, to give you some information to help you decide what you think of commercial baby foods and how they will feature in your little ones’ diet.
Most commercial foods marketed for infants in the first year are smooth, or smooth with soft lumps, and it is likely that most infants are able to manage a faster progression to mashed and chopped foods than these products encourage. Buying very smooth commercial foods does not allow adaptation of texture for each baby, and does not promote the taste variations, chewing and swallowing babies need to learn to become confident eaters. Babies can very quickly be offered whole fruit and vegetables as finger foods, and ideally the fruit and vegetables offered in mixed dishes should be coarsely mashed, or later chopped as eating confidence increases.
The small amounts of meat and fish used in many dishes are likely to contribute lower amounts of iron (and zinc) compared with homemade equivalents. Examples of this include Hipp Organic Spaghetti Bolognese of which only 5% is beef, Heinz Creamy Fish Pie of which only 8% is fish, and Cow & Gate Yummy Harvest Chicken of which less than 10% of the dish is chicken. If I served a Spaghetti Bolognese with only 5% meat at dinnertime I’d soon be hearing complaints from the rest of the family!
There is limited data on the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in commercial baby foods and manufacturers seem reluctant to provide this information (the cynic in me could hypothesise as to why). It seems likely however that the high-pressure cooking they are exposed to in production will reduce the amounts present of some vitamins.
Many of these products (70% of those which combine fruit and vegetables) have a very high proportion of puréed apple or pear, even when this is not highlighted in the name. For example if you were making a blueberry and banana puree at home what would you put into it? Personally, I’d tend to use blueberries and bananas in mine. Heinz put 78% apple puree into their product of the same name. If you want your child to get a taste for veg you’d be best avoiding Ella’s Kitchens’ Broccoli, pear and pea puree which is 79% pear and only 7% broccoli. When buying these products check the ingredients list on the back to avoid being misled into thinking that they are offering savoury vegetable tastes when this is not the case.
As discussed on the blog a few weeks back, liking for vegetables is thought to be linked to serving individual unmixed vegetables to infants. Hiding savoury and bitter flavours in sweeter foods is not going to support a child in developing a taste for the vegetables in question. The single vegetable and fruit range from Ella’s Kitchen, contains 10 flavours, 6 of which are sweet (banana, prune, mango, apple, pear and peach), and 4 of which are sweet vegetables (sweet potato, carrot, parsnip and peas). The bitter foods such as cauliflower and broccoli which are of most importance are not included in their range. Also, these 70g pouches are not always 100% fruit or vegetables; depending on the ease with which foods can be puréed, they have water added. For example, the puréed peas are only 50% peas, the rest of your 80p is spent on good old water. You can make a 90% pea puree at home with a much richer green appearance, fresher taste and at half the cost.
A number of baby foods have fruit juice added and this can increase the sugar content considerably. There are even a small number of savoury meals where fruit juice concentrate has been used, either alone or in addition to whole fruit, to sweeten meals. These include; Heinz’s ‘Sweet and sour chicken’, which contains 20% apples and 15% apple juice from concentrate; Heinz’s ‘Lamb and winter veggies’, which contains 22% apple juice from concentrate and purée; and Heinz’s ‘Broccoli and salmon risotto’, which contains an undisclosed amount of apple juice from concentrate. Can’t say I’ve ever added apple juice to my salmon risotto at home.
Even in those products where sugar has not been added, the sugar content is likely to be much higher in commercial puréed foods than appears on the label, as the products are highly macerated and heat-treated. Foods that are made at home and mashed are likely to maintain much of the sugar in the structure of the fruit or vegetable, which is not the case after processing. By simply tasting many of the fruit and vegetable purées in baby food ranges, it is obvious that they are considerably sweeter than a home-made equivalent, and ultimately this is why babies show a preference for them over the food we prepare at home! As we want infants to become accustomed to the authentic flavours of fruits and vegetables, it would be wise to offer home-made versions at every opportunity.
If you mash your own organic carrots, 70g would cost you 14p, while 70g of Ella’s kitchen ‘Carrots carrots carrots’ (which despite the title are only 82% carrots!), cost 90p. Similarly, Cow & Gate Rice Pudding will set you back 80p per portion whilst the cost to prepare the same thing at home (with the option of leaving out the sugar and perhaps adding cinnamon or nutmeg if you wish) is just 7p. That’s a great mark up. If you fed one main meal and one dessert using commercial food every day for the first 6 months of complementary feeding you’re looking at around £250 – £300 as a conservative estimate of the extra money you’ll be spending.
If you are using the pouch-style presentation be sure to empty it into a bowl or onto a spoon first. Sucking directly from a baby food pouch should be avoided as this may impact on oral health, does not allow children to see the food they are eating, and does not allow infants or care-givers to know how much they are eating. Sucking from the pouch changes eating from a chewing to a sucking experience and may lead to overeating.
The environmental impact is also worth considering, given that pouches, which are an increasingly popular packaging style for convenience baby foods, are not recyclable. Homemade foods can be taken out and about in similar packaging which is reusable (see companies such as Nom-Nom kids).
This report takes a pretty negative view of commercial baby foods and it is important to put it into perspective. There is nothing in these foods which can harm your little one, and using commercial foods shouldn’t be yet another reason to judge mums or for the homemade brigade to feel self-righteous or superior. There’s already enough of that with breast vs bottle feeding!
What is interesting is that research shows that mums choose commercial foods over homemade because they think that these foods are simple, safe and frequently superior to ones they might make themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth, so when you do have the opportunity, save yourself some money, push past the clever marketing and give what you’re eating for dinner a mash or a whizz in the blender. Your baby will thank you for it.