By Cynthia Lair of Cookus Interruptus
Issue 91, November/December 1998
As parents, we are given an opportunity to revisit what it means to nourish. Babies and young children wait expectantly for their parents to feed them. The choice of what goes into an infant’s mouth is up to us, at least while our children are small. Most of us want to feed our children the best food possible, but often the line between nutrition education and advertising is thin.
Americans fork over $1.25 billion every year buying commercially prepared baby food. Many parents take their cues about when to start their babies on solid foods from baby food manufacturers. If the cereal box says it’s safe for four-month-old babies, parents assume this to be true. Of course it behooves the baby food companies to have parents start solids as early as possible. But does the baby benefit? Studies show that the early introduction of solids may be linked to an increase in childhood food allergies. 1
There are obvious physical signs of a baby’s readiness for solid foods. These usually don’t occur until about six months of age and include the ability to sit up unattended and the tendency to grab or reach for food. Some cultures use the appearance of teeth as a sign of readiness. Many parents aren’t aware that during a baby’s first year, he can get almost all of the nutrition he needs from breastmilk. The first few months of eating solids are therefore less to provide nutrients than to accustom a baby to new tastes and textures.
Have you checked out the taste and texture of commercial baby cereal? Pour some commercial rice cereal in a bowl. It has no smell. The taste is the very definition of bland. The cereal is made from refined rice that has been processed and precooked. Refined grains have nothing to offer but carbohydrates. Whole grains, on the other hand, contain not only carbohydrates but also protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, essential minerals, and life. The germ is still intact. If you put a whole grain in water, it sprouts. If you put commercial baby cereal in water, it makes paste. Why train your baby to want this? By pre-toasting organic whole grains, grinding them in a small electric grinder, and cooking the grains with water, you can create a fresh, delicious, nutrient-dense cereal with taste, texture, and aroma.
Commercial baby food is convenient, it’s true. But the price for this convenience is high. Besides paying companies to blenderize food and put it in jars, you also pay them to dilute the food with water and sometimes to add starchy fillers such as tapioca, rice flour, and modified cornstarch. Even the companies producing organic baby food sometimes use fillers. Such additives lower production costs and help mask off-flavors.
In 1995, the Center for Science in the Public Interest did an evaluation of commercial baby food. Their published findings concluded: "To give your baby the most nutritious and economical food, prepare your own baby food whenever possible. Using a blender or food processor, it is easy to puree most foods." 2
Is Organic Necessary?
Many parents wonder about the importance of organic food for their infant, given that organic produce and grains sometimes can be more expensive than their nonorganic counterparts. The answer is that pesticides are a concern. Even traces of the chemicals can irritate the immature digestive system of an infant. Congress unanimously passed a Food Quality Protection Act in 1996 that requires all pesticides to be safe for infants and children. Yet in a recent comprehensive study done by the Environmental Working Group, pesticide levels in the US food supply were found to be at unsafe levels for children aged six months to five years. According to the report, peaches, apples, pears, grapes, and commercial baby foods which use these fruits are the most common sources of unsafe levels of organophosphate pesticides. To protect your child, buy organic baby food; or better yet, make fresh food for your baby from a variety of organic grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
The bottom line is that the best way to ensure the quality of your baby’s food is to make it yourself. Fresh food has the maximum in vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. Foods lose nutrients when processed. A little jar of army-green peas with a two-year shelf life simply can’t compare to the smell, taste, color, and vitality offered by garden-fresh peas that have been steamed and mashed.
Some parents worry that they must always supplement their child’s diet with prepared foods that contain iron, since there has been considerable publicity in recent years about iron deficiency in infants. Several factors can lead to such deficiencies. One is a mother who was anemic during pregnancy. Another is the common practice of cutting the cord too early, before pulsing has ceased. Apparently this can decrease the iron stores transferred from the mother. Choosing formula over breastmilk is also a factor. Babies absorb iron from breastmilk better than from iron-fortified formulas. If the mother’s iron levels are sufficient, a child who is breastfed for a year will most likely maintain normal iron status. 4 But, perhaps playing to the fears of conscientious parents, baby food manufacturers typically fortify their infant cereals with electrolytic iron. Unfortunately, this is one of the least absorbable forms of artificial iron. It will, however, stick to the flakes of cereal instead of settling to the bottom of the box. Ferrous sulfate, a more absorbable form of iron, can affect the flavor and appearance of the cereal.
Artificial iron wouldn’t be required at all if the companies used whole grain for their cereals, especially such nutrient-dense varieties as quinoa and millet, which have naturally occurring iron. If you are breastfeeding your baby, eating a well-balanced diet, and using whole-grain cereal for your baby, you should not have to worry about iron. If, however, you are concerned, consider making your own iron-fortified cereal: Simply toast the grains you use in a cast-iron skillet or add a sprinkle of kelp, an iron-rich sea vegetable.
Making It Yourself
For mothers and fathers who work full-time, either in the home or outside, making their babies’ foods can seem an overwhelming task. But, in fact, it’s easy. Babies are more adventurous eaters than many of us give them credit for; they’ll usually love unusual flavors and textures if they’re given the chance to try them. So do what our foremothers and their foremothers did. Take some of the fresh food you are eating yourself and puree it for your baby. You’ll often be surprised to find that your one year old adores hummus, pasta, even broccoli.
To get started, invest in a good-quality blender or food processor and a small electric coffee grinder (separate from the one you use for coffee). Use the grinder to grind grains for whole-grain baby cereal. Use the blender or food processor to whir some of the peas, carrots, sweet potatoes, baked apples, kidney beans, or brown rice that the rest of the family is eating. Food does not have to be pureed to the silky smoothness of commercial food. A little texture is okay. Stick with simple whole grains, fruits, and vegetables for babies six to10 months of age. Always introduce new foods one at a time and wait four to five days before introducing another new food.
The following recipes will help you to get started. Note that all of them are designed to provide nutritious, delicious, and easy-to-make meals for the entire family. You and your older children can enjoy them as much as baby does. Shared family meals are, after all, the foundation of strong, healthy families.
Cynthia Lair has been part of the nutrition faculty at Bastyr University, the nation’s only fully accredited school of natural medicine, since 1994. She is the author of Feeding the Whole Family: Whole Foods Recipes for Babies, Young Children and Their Parents (Moon Smile Press, 1998).
1. L. Businco, G. Bruno, P. G. Giampietro, and M. Ferrara, "Is Prevention of Food Allergy Worthwhile?" Journal of Investigative Allergies and Clinical Immunology, 3, no. 5 (1993): 231–236.
2. Daryl D. Stallone, PhD, M.P.H. and Michael F. Jacobson, PhD "Cheating Babies: Nutritional Quality and Cost of Commercial Baby Food," Center for Science in the Public Interest, April 1995.
3. Richard Wiles, Kert Davies, and Christopher Campbell, "Overexposed: Organophosphate Insecticides in Children’s Food," Environmental Working Group/The Tides Center, January 1998.
4. American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Nutrition, "The Use of Whole Cow’s Milk in Infancy," 89, no. 6 (1992): 1105–1109.
For more information on baby food, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: "Baby Food Is Whatever I Feed My Baby," no. 85; "First Food," no. 77; and "Satisfaction Guaranteed: Getting Started as a Vegetarian Family," no. 72.
Firkaly, Susan Tate. Into the Mouths of Babes. Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 1995.
Sweet, O. Robin and Thomas Bloom. The Well Fed Baby. Macmillan, 1994.
Yaron, Ruth. Super Baby Food Book. F. J. Roberts Publishing, 1998