Like many aspects of life, convenience doesn’t equate with quality and many of the current commercial baby food options are not as they seem, and certainly not ideal as babies first foods. Let’s explore baby food, commercial baby food compared with homemade baby food in particular, and not because I want to pass judgement, but because I think it’s easy to get mislead. Nutrition is so important in the first years of life. Seeing the advertisements, it appears that a wide range of companies are making nutritious, health-promoting baby food, but this isn’t fully accurate.
In fact, many of the ingredients in commercial baby food are highly processed, with links to a variety of health issues. Furthermore, some of these foods contain contaminants such as heavy metals and pesticides. Healthy eating should not just be limited to adults and older children. The early stages of development are crucial to the health and well-being of infants, and the move towards solid food presents the perfect opportunity to introduce little ones to foods that are rich in natural goodness to facilitate optimal development.
COMMERCIAL BABY FOOD
One of the biggest problems with commercial baby food is that it’s designed to be stored on shelves in grocery stores and supermarkets with a long shelf life; on average two years. To make food stay ‘fresher’ for longer on the shelves, food has to be preserved and sterilized; organic as well as non-organic brands. This means that even when no additional preservatives are added, the food needs to be heated to maximum temperatures to ensure that it is not at risk for contamination after months on the shelf. Along with this heating process all vitamins and nutrients are killed off, and the food’s natural flavouring has been neutralized during the same process. In fact, most commercial baby foods will list apple (which is actually sometimes just apple juice) to sweeten the ‘food’ without adding sugar. Then because they didn’t directly and specifically add table/cane sugar they can slap a big text box “NO ADDED SUGAR” and the buyer can be easily mislead. Furthermore, to cut costs the food is also often thinned with water or thickening agents/starches like refined rice, refined corn and refined wheat. These substances are devoid of the outer layers of the grain, with preservatives and bleach commonly added during processing and the refining of any grain reduces its vitamins, proteins and roughage (Spock 2004).
Commercial baby foods are fairly unilateral in flavour, texture and even nutrients. Have you ever turned the jar over to look at the nutritional panel and observed which vitamins and minerals it actually lists? Most often it only contains Vitamin C – and that vitamin C is synthetically added as ascorbic acid. What’s more, it is usually GMO Vitamin C which means it was derived from GMO corn. It seems that if a product is labelled “high in Vitamin C”, consumers buy more of it. Many people are being fooled by these misleading semantics. There is a growing body of evidence in fact showing that consuming high doses of ascorbic acid can be worrisome. Synthetic vitamins such as ascorbic acid act more like drugs in the body rather than whole food nutrients with all the available co-factors. Taking any synthetic vitamin can cause imbalances in the body and should be avoided. The best way to get vitamin C on a daily basis is from consuming whole foods.
COMMERCIAL VS HOMEMADE BABY FOOD
Let me illustrate an example of the nutritional differences between homemade and store-bought baby foods. Each 71 gram serving of Gerber 1st Foods Banana Purée contains 13 grams of sugar, 5 milligrams of sodium and less than 1 gram of fibre. But 71 grams of mashed-up banana contains only 8.7 grams of sugar (a teaspoon less), under 1 milligram of sodium, and 1.8 grams of fibre. And lest you think it’s just a brand problem, a 71 gram serving of Earth’s Best 1st Bananas —you know, the brand that’s supposedly more virtuous than Gerber—contains 12 grams of sugar, 1 gram of fibre, and even more sodium (20 milligrams).
Gerber and Earth’s Best say they add no sugar or salt to their formulations, but recall this is a processed food, whereby purées are prepared from concentrates diluted by water, or apple juice, or simply cooked at such high temperatures that all the natural containing vitamins, minerals and enzymes have been denatured or destroyed, leaving behind only their natural containing carbohydrates (SUGAR). Turn over the label of any commercial baby food and you will see that its majority carbohydrate-containing, and has very little (if any) fibre, protein or fat!
Another major benefit to making homemade baby food is that it allows you to introduce flavours that are natural and tasty. Many store-bought baby foods are bland and unappetizing, with limited variety in combinations and flavours. Herbs and spices are seldom (if ever) used in commercial food, resulting in food that is less than exciting for your baby, and doesn’t do much for exposing their palate. This leads me to the next bonus for opting for homemade baby food versus commercial.
Babies who get homemade food may learn to like a wider variety of food types and encounter fewer picky eating tendencies than infants who eat store-bought commercial baby products, a recent study suggests. For the study, researchers from the Research Institute at McGill University Health Centre and the Montreal Children’s Hospital sought to determine whether the source of food – homemade or commercial – influences variety, infant growth and weight. They examined dietary data on 65 infants and assessments of body fat from exams when infants were 6, 9, 12 and 36 months old. The study found babies who only ate homemade foods had more diverse diets earlier in life and even lower body fat mass when they were 1 year and 3 years old, findings that could have implications for preventing obesity and chronic diseases tied to poor food choices. When researchers scored babies’ diets based on how many of seven different food groups they consumed, the infants getting only homemade food achieved scores a full point higher than babies getting only store-bought foods. “Given that food preferences begin early in life, are likely to persist and are difficult to change in adulthood, providing appropriate food choices during the complementary feeding period is of importance to facilitate food acceptance and ensure healthy growth and development,” the lead researcher noted.
The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines urge parents to feed babies a varied diet including meat, poultry, fish and eggs along with a range of fruits and vegetables starting at age 6 months, this very guideline would be greatly missed if relying solely on commercial baby food.
WHAT’S A MOM TO DO?
So what’s the best food strategy for exhausted, busy moms (and parents)? If you can’t prepare anything at home, don’t beat yourself up, it’s okay to grab a pouch or jar here and there when you’re in a pinch, but even better yet look at your local farmers market, and see if you have any local companies that are into making homemade baby foods in small batches, with real, whole-fresh foods, such as the one I am going to introduce you to. CALGARY, ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE TO YOU: Lil’ Orchard Baby Foods. Mom, and owner Kristi Chrumka makes whole-food products specifically for weaning from breastmilk or formula to solid foods. She begins with fresh-picked, single ingredient, local fruits & vegetables from Chongo’s Produce Market (located within the Crossroads Farmers Market). She then gently cooks and purees the local fruits & veggies to perfection, and freezes them in single serving cubes providing homemade baby food conveniently. The vibrant colours, honest flavours, and homemade processing exclaim ‘this is as good as it gets!’. You simply defrost overnight in the refrigerator or gently warm in a bowl of hot water and use within 48 hours of heating or thawing. Kristi has chosen to keep the flavours, and variety cubes as whole and clean as possible using only the local produce and water for steaming. This makes the product(s) available to anyone and everyone including those with allergy, or dietary restrictions (such as Hallal, Kosher, Vegetarian, Vegan etc). You can serve these cubes conveniently as is, or customize them with whatever spices you’re using in your family meal. She’s already done the hard work, leaving the creativity and customization up to you and your baby! The options are quite limitless with the way Kristi has set up her product bundles, with just a tear of a bag you could go from sweet spices to aromatic herbs, natural sweetness and tasty combinations that blend her fruit and vegetables as well as any other foods you have on hand; meat, poultry or fish, quinoa and frozen peas, oats and avocados, brown rice and beans, etc. Your baby will discover a world of taste, and textural sensations as well as nutrient density and variety! The introduction to solid foods need not be traumatic and difficult – for baby and parents. Experimenting with the delicious goodness powered by nature will turn feeding time into something that everyone will enjoy. And for this reason especially, there are few things that can match homemade baby food. Thank you Kristi for creating products that offer us parents peace of mind that we are feeding our children foods which are whole, fresh, and free from the additives and marketing semantics found in standard commercial baby foods.
Written by Randall Heilik, CHNC and owner of Healthy Firsts, an alternative and holistic health service focusing on early life nutrition.