baby in highchair

There aren’t to many facts nutritional experts agree on but eating a diet low in processed foods and high in whole foods is one point everybody in the field seems to agree on. Still there is one category of processed foods consumers believe to be healthy – baby food.

The question is, does commercial baby food contain all the nutrients babies need to grow healthy despite being highly processed? I chose to look beyond the shiny labels to find out what a diet based on commercial baby food provides for the youngest.

1. Homemade baby food has a higher nutritional value

baby food jars

Commercial baby food is often believed to be healthier than home cooked meals. Many parents trust that the producers are putting the right amount of nutrients babies need to thrive in the little jars. Often intimidated by the weaning process, parents think that commercial baby food is the healthiest option for their child. They believe that manufactured baby food is specially tailored to contain all the necessary ingredients, even better than home cooked meals.

Researchers from the University of Glasgow analyzed the nutrient content of commercial baby food from four main producers in the UK. They found that a baby would have to eat twice as much commercial food compared to home made meals to get the same amount of nutrients. The only exception was iron. Homemade meals were lower in iron than commercial baby food that contained meat.

Over processed food

Although baby food contains all the ingredients listed on the label it is simply over processed, with the intention to appeal better to babies pallet. The ingredients used are boiled and pureed so much that they loose a lot of their nutrients during the production process. The result is a homogenized mash that babies can eat easily, since it’s smooth and doesn’t involve to much chewing, but has lost valuable nutrients. Have you ever asked yourself why the store bought meal never has the same consistency and look as the homemade version? Well it doesn’t have the same taste or quality as well.

Amount of ingredients used in baby food

Also the amount of single ingredients that go into a baby meal are far less than many people believe. For example if you see a food jar that says “Beef with potatoes and carrots”, you expect that there is about 60-70% of veggies and 30-40% of meat in this meal. The EU regulation says that if meat, fish, poultry or another source of protein are mentioned first in a product name they have to constitute at least 10% of the product! If meat is mentioned in the name of the product, but not in the first place, the content of meat can go down to 8% and even 5%. That means that in a jar of baby food of 3.5 oz (100 gr) there is a maximum 10gr of meat. That’s less than one table spoon of meat. Surely you would put more meat if you cooked the same meal at home.

baby food meal

Just look at the label of this Chicken and rice baby meal. From the front label everybody would assume that the main ingredients are chicken and rice. Looking at the ingredient list, notice how ground chicken and whole grain rice powder are basically at the end of the list. The main ingredients are carrots, water and pear juice. One container has only 2 gr of protein, that’s about 7gr of chicken meat, which is less than 10% of the product.

So what then is the main ingredient if the main ingredient stated on the label isn’t really the main ingredient? Most often it’s water. In other words you pay premium price for empty calories. The better version is that the main ingredient is the least expensive vegetable listed on the declaration.

Pasteurization of food

The other reason baby food lacks in nutrients is the pasteurization process all baby food goes through. Baby food manufacturers have to comply to very strict sanitation and microbiological regulation. Also it is their goal to prevent any kind of spoilage to prolong shelf life of the products. To achieve this, baby food is pasteurized at high temperatures to kill all bacteria. As a result baby food is free of bacteria, good and bad, and has a shelf life measured in years. Unfortunately many nutrients, antioxidants and enzymes can’t survive those high temperatures, making the finished products less nutritious than their homemade counterpart.

Although baby food manufacturers are trying to convince parents that only the best ingredients are used in baby food production the nutritious value of their food is lower than in homemade meals. Commercial baby food contains less nutrients because it is over processed, over heated and contains only a percentage of the foods listed on the main label.

2. Commercial baby food contains added ingredients

Thickening food with starches

As mentioned earlier water can be the main ingredient in a baby food jar. But as we all know the content doesn’t look watery at all. How come? Producers add refined starches (usually refined rice, refined corn and refined wheat) to thicken their food mixture. This makes it possible to bulk up the content with less real food in it. The consequence is that the food contains a lot of water, refined starches and less nutrients than it would in the homemade version.

If you would make carrots and peas baby puree at home you would probably cook the carrots and peas and blend them until they are smooth. Maybe you would add a teaspoon or two of water to make it blend easier. In store bought baby food carrots and peas are added to water, mixed into a watery substance and thickened up with a refined starch. No wonder that the home made version has more nutrients- it simply contains more real food.tureky rice babyfood

hipp babyfood

By looking at the ingredient list of this Gerber turkey and rice puree, you can see that water is the main ingredient.  Rice and wheat flour for bulking and thickening of the food are added. Also organic baby food is produced by adding starches for thickening. On this HIPP label of organic william christ pears puree it says 50% of the content are pears. The other 50% are juice, water and starch. In other words only half of this portion is made out of real pears, the other ingredients are added to make the production cheaper.

A study conducted at the University of Greenwich by Dr.Nazanin Zand and her team investigated the micronutrient content in store bought baby food. They measured the amount of calcium, copper, magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium, sodium and selenium in the samples of four popular baby food producers. They found that babies who eat one meat jar and one vegetable jar on top of 600ml of formula milk per day don’t get enough calcium, magnesium, copper and selenium. The ready made meals provided 20% less of these essential micronutrients than the RDI for infants.

Sugar and salt

When you produce baby food with a lot of water and starch the taste of the food becomes blend. That’s when sugar and salt are added to make the food tastier for babies. The recommendation for infants is not to add salt and sugar to their meals up to one year of age. This allows them to get used to the taste of individual ingredients making it more likely to eat that food later in life.

sweet baby food

This jar of fruit puree has 150 calories and 66% come from sugar! That’s quiet concerning since the AHA recommendation states that foods are of poor nutritional quality if more than 20% of their calories derive from sugar. Unfortunately the current labeling of food does not distinguish between natural occurring sugar from fruit and added sugars. That’s why you have to check the ingredients label, where the added sugar is listed. In this case sugar is added through juice concentrates.

A study conducted by Charlene D. Elliott analyzed 186 samples of baby and toddler food sold in Canada. The samples were analyzed for sodium and sugar content. She found that 63% of products have either high levels of sodium or an excessive proportion of calories coming from sugar. Excessive added sugar was also found  in baby purees which are intended to be eaten by the youngest (7-12 months). Products high in sodium (more than 130 mg of sodium) were mainly targeted to toddlers (12 -24 months).

Synthetic vitamins

One more consequence of industrial production of baby food is that with food processing and pasteurization a lot of  vitamins get lost. To solve this problem manufacturers add artificial vitamins to their food. The vitamin content of commercial baby food is usually listed on the label. The list of vitamins the child gets usually makes parents feel good and is a selling point for the producers. But there is an important difference between vitamins that come from food and synthetic vitamins.  Typically synthetic vitamins are not absorbed as well by the body and can even be harmful if taken over a long period of time. Vitamins from whole food are complete vitamin sources, containing additional components that help the body absorb them with maximum health benefits. Babies don’t need a lot of food but what they eat needs to be nutritious quality food to help them grow properly.

Ready made meals for babies don’t contain only the ingredients mentioned in their name on the label. A variety of other ingredients are added to enhance quantity and mask taste. That’s why refined starches, added salt and sugar are found in many commercial baby food items. Although vitamins are added to improve nutritious content of the food, synthetic forms of vitamin maybe less absorbed by babies body than vitamins from whole foods.

3. Setting unhealthy taste preferences for the future

baby food in supermarket

Manufacturers are bringing out more and more different flavors of ready made meals in the baby food aisle. Although the sometimes exotic mixes are meant to appeal to taste preferences of parents and babies it seems that all these flavor mixes may actually contribute to creating fussy eaters later on. A study published in the “Appetite Journal” conducted by biopsychologist Marion M. Hetherington et al. found that babies who are introduced slowly to food made only out of one vegetable (peas, carrots, green beans, spinach or broccoli) are more receptive to accepting and liking other vegetables later on.

There is a valuable opportunity between the age of 6-12 months when babies can be introduced to different tastes and textures. By keeping their menu simple and feeding them one vegetable at a time they get to learn the taste of each vegetable individually. When mixing different vegetables into one puree the taste of individual vegetables is masked. This way babies eat their veggies, but they never get the opportunity to learn and like the taste of individual foods. Children who have not learned to differentiate between flavors are not going to like the taste and structure of vegetables later on, making them fussy eaters. It is very likely that persons fed with mixed puree vegetables never really develop a taste and liking for vegetables.

By feeding babies mixed puree vegetables and meals we don’t allow babies to get to know the taste of every single vegetable by itself. Learning to differentiate the taste and structure of every vegetable is a crucial skill for eating and liking vegetables later on in life. Vegetables should be introduced to babies diet step-by-step one at a time. This is traditionally the way babies are weaned in France.

4. Pesticides

baby with spoon

One issue with baby food is also the concentration of pesticides in these foods. The US has no set regulation for pesticide content in baby food. The European legislation sets a limit of no more than 0.01 parts per million of any pesticide in baby food. Testing baby food for pesticides by the USDA has only just begun in 2012.  Back then several different pesticides were found in a significant amount of samples, especially pears, apple juice and peach purees.

In 2014 the pesticide levels are still higher in one third of 777 peach puree samples than recommended by the European Commission.

The USDA tested 379 baby food applesauce samples for five pesticides. 23% of the samples contained acetamiprid, a pesticide that has been under testing in Europe since it is believed to disrupt the development of the nervous system in babies. About 10% of the samples contained  the fungicide carbediazim.

The results are even worse for apple juice, which many babies and toddlers consume in large amounts. About every sixth sample was found to contain the pesticide diphenylamine which is banned in Europe. Also every fourth grape juice sample contained carbaryl, also banned in Europe.

Only carrots and peas were not found to have higher levels of pesticides.

You may say that even if baby food was homemade it will still contain pesticides from the foods we cook. That is true and that is why it is advisable to keep track of the dirty dozen list EWG publishes every year. If your on a budget and can’t afford to buy organic produce for you and your baby you should consider buying the organic version of the vegetables that make the dirty dozen list. This way you will significantly reduce pesticide intake.

5. No difference between stage1, stage2 and stage 3 baby and toddler food

If you’re asking yourself if there is any difference between the quality of stage 1 (finely pureed food), stage 2 (thicker mixed food) and stage 3 (chunkier meals) baby food the answer is – not really. The previously mentioned findings apply to all baby food, even the ones marketed from 4 months on.

In fact when comparing the quality of commercial baby food with the adult version it was not found to be superior in quality. The popular believe that industrial baby food is specially tailored quality food for the needs of growing babies is simply not true.

Baby food in the jar is simply not superior to homemade versions, in fact the contrary is true.

6. Making baby food at home is much cheaper

frozen baby food

At the end the cost of buying and making baby food at home should be taken into account. Baby food jars are very expensive when the amount of food is considered that goes into one portion. You can make several portions of food by buying only a few ingredients for the fraction of the cost of baby food jars. Additional savings can be made if you cook and freeze the food in mini portions for later use.

For example one portion od 2.5 oz (71 gr) of stage 1 banana puree costs 0.98 USD (Baby banana puree). Compared to that, a pound of organic bananas costs 0.86 USD per pound (organic banana price). From a pound of bananas six 2.5 oz portions of banana puree for the price of 0.14 USD per portion can be made. That’s 85% cheaper than buying the commercial baby food!

The fact is that commercial baby food has one advantage nobody can deny- it’s simply very convenient. You don’t have to cook and there are no leftovers. It’s also practical to carry around when you’re on the road with your baby. Making baby food at home does take a little bit more time, but portions can be frozen and stored for later.

Also you can cook your babies veggies while your cooking for the rest of the family.  For example while your making soup just add your babies veggies to the soup without any spices. Take your babies veggies out when they are cooked and make baby puree portions from it. Season the rest and make soup for the rest of the family. This way you don’t have to cook twice.

Your paying a premium price for a small amount of food that comes in baby jars. Making baby purees at home is significantly cheaper, even up to 80-90%.  In the light of the fact that homemade baby food is healthier and more nutritious a little extra effort in preparing the food does pay off. At the end every parent has to make that decision for themselves.

What is the best baby food?

With aggressive marketing and health claims producers are letting parents believe that baby food is specially tailored to ideally satisfy their babies needs. In fact commercial baby food is highly processed and less nutritious than homemade baby food, often with added salt and sugar. If your feeding your baby occasionally with a store bought baby food jar it won’t have a bad influence on your babies health and development. On the other hand feeding babies exclusively with commercial baby food can cause nutritional deficiencies, depriving babies of nutrients they need to develop healthy.

Even baby food producers recommend their products as an addition to balanced homemade meals. With just a little bit more work you can make healthy, inexpensive meals, where you know every ingredient that went into your babies food. That way you will know that you’re feeding your baby the best quality food it needs to thrive.

Photo credit: Rainbow by Frédérique Voisin-Demery, By ParentingPatch, Homemade Baby Food by Selbe