Baby food: A purée primer

For many babies, the first morsel of food comes from a jar—we examine what's on the shelves.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

“What’s up with all the baby food?” This from my 10-year-old son after surveying my home-office desk, which is strewn with little jars — a sea of labels plastered with impossibly cute babies staring out at me. Amid the strained squash and puréed peas, toddler banana graham pie and junior turkey stew are umpteen boxes of mixed and rice baby cereals. Nobody in our home has gone near a spoonful of Pablum in almost a decade, and I have to admit I share my son’s confusion.

What is up with store-bought baby food?

To begin with, the product range is bewilderingly huge, growing bigger every year. “Choice” appears to be the mantra among manufacturers, and it’s reflected wholeheartedly in the vast array on supermarket shelves. Indeed, it’s estimated the average North American household buys some 600 jars, or 2,400 fluid ounces, of commercial baby food in year one of an infant’s life.

If you’re a first-time buyer (i.e. a sleep-deprived parent), you can expect to spend some quality time in the baby food aisle deciphering lingo, labels and contents before making that first purchase. Here’s a guide to help you find your way around store-bought baby food:

Who is Out There?
Heinz Canada is the big player in the Canadian baby food market*. It’s estimated the company has between 80 to 90 percent of the market share. Despite this, selection is still vast; Heinz alone has more than 80 different baby food products under its label.

Competition, albeit small, does exist. You’ll also find President’s Choice, Earth’s Best (owned by the Hain Celestial Group, 20 per cent of which is owned by Heinz) and Pablum (also owned by Heinz) in baby food aisles across Canada. (Gerber baby foods have not been sold in Canada since 1998.) Meanwhile, the baby cereal market is dominated by Nestlé, Heinz and Milupa, with inroads being made by newcomer President’s Choice.

Where to Start
Let’s say your baby is over six months and you’re searching for the right jar of store-bought baby food to start with. Due to government labelling restrictions, no baby food manufacturer can state an age lower than six months on a label. Thus, euphemistic terms such as “starter” or “beginner” are used on labels of jarred foods, presumably for babies under six months (Current guidelines recommend waiting until six months to start solids at six months, but this system evolved when four to six months was commonly advised.) Other jars state “from about six months,” “from about eight months” or “from about 12 months.”

To complicate things, Heinz and Milupa cereals use Steps 1 to 4 on their labels to signify the stage at which you should use the cereal. But their steps don’t coincide, so the farther you step, the easier it is to trip. For example, Step 2 in Milupa language is “single grain cereals with the addition of one fruit at a time,” but Heinz Step 2 means “one month after Step 1.” The result? Murky consumer territory littered with confusing stumbling blocks.

To be fair, labelling is bound to be tricky for manufacturers since babies need a slow, deliberate introduction to solids. A baby can’t race into a jar of Heinz Toddler Chicken Cacciatore until she has travelled through a safe progression of single first foods introduced one by one, to check for allergic reactions. Moreover, for infants, texture is paramount. They usually need to start with a purée, then graduate through different degrees of thickness before encountering soft table foods.

Nutritionist Marian Law of Toronto Public Health says, “Store-bought baby foods provide little variety in texture. Smooth puréed baby foods [with ‘beginner’ or ‘starter’ on the label] are suitable up to about eight months. Foods labelled ‘junior,’ for babies from about eight months old, have soft lumps, but not really much more texture. The textures in jarred foods do not give baby much practice learning to chew and swallow.”

*Update: Beech Nut, a long established label in the U.S., entered the Canadian market in 2006.

A jar of strained carrots, regardless of brand, is likely to contain the same amount of calories, vitamins and minerals as its counterpart — namely, real puréed carrots. But is a bottle of Heinz Strained Banana Tapioca Dessert going to deliver the same nutrition as a mashed banana?

“Not all baby food is created equal,” advises Wendy Cohen Reingold, a Thornhill, Ont., dietitian. She conducts regular supermarket tours with her clients, many of whom are parents of babies, and advises parents to “make a beeline to the ingredient list. If you want to buy prunes, read the list and make sure prunes are the first or second item listed.” Ingredient labels must list foods according to their weight, heaviest first and lightest last. When prunes are first on the list, says Reingold, you know there are more prunes in the jar than anything else.

The second item on beginner or starter baby foods is likely to be water, since water is needed to purée the food. (Both Heinz and President’s Choice say their beginner fruits and vegetables are puréed in the water in which the food was cooked to make sure no nutrients are lost.)

Fortunately, whether you buy Heinz (regular or organic), President’s Choice (regular or organic) or Earth’s Best, you will find nothing else on a starter or beginner label of jarred food other than the single fruit or vegetable, plus water. Pure and simple.

Why it’s Trickier as Baby Gets Older
If only cereals and jarred foods “from about six months” and older were as simple. Heinz and Pablum both sell a variety of baby food desserts. Fifteen out of 17 Heinz dessert products list water as the first ingredient. Heinz strained Tutti Frutti dessert has sugar as the second ingredient — revealing there is more sugar than fruit in the jar. Cereals such as Milupa Step 3 Mixed Cereals–Fruits with 35 percent infant formula and Heinz Rice Cereal with 35 percent infant formula, each have a mind-boggling 47 ingredients listed on the label.

When to Throw it Out
Once you’ve popped open a jar of store-bought baby food, it’s safe to store it in the fridge for up to three days — as long as you haven’t fed junior directly from the jar. Enzymes and bacteria from baby’s saliva will contaminate the food during storage and may cause spoilage, so any leftover baby cereal or jarred food in a child’s bowl should be thrown out, not stored in the fridge.

It’s not necessary to heat jarred baby food. Most babies are happy to eat it at room temperature or chilled from the fridge. Microwaving a jar of baby food is not a good idea; it can splatter and will create hot spots in the food. If you must microwave, be sure to stir it well after heating and test first for temperature.

Dietitian and author Louise Lambert-Lagacé of Montreal sighs when asked about commercial baby cereals. “Baby cereals are more complicated than ever for parents,” she says. “Many have a very long list of ingredients. While manufacturers have tried to make it more simple with their ‘steps’ and ‘stages,’ they’ve actually made it more confusing.”

Lambert-Lagacé says, “We really just feed cereal to babies for the iron. They need a lot.” The recommended daily intake (RDI) for infants six to 11 months is seven milligrams of iron a day. Other than cereal (all of which is iron-fortified in Canada), she says it’s difficult to feed baby enough iron from other foods. Once babies start ingesting solid food, the iron in breastmilk is not as easily absorbed.

When choosing baby cereals, Lambert-Lagacé recommends you choose a plain cereal, versus one with added formula. “Plain cereal puts the power of choice back to the mother. If she wants to add breastmilk, she can. If she wants to add formula, she can add the one of her choice, rather than the one in the box.” Choice aside, using a plain cereal alleviates allergy concerns, since even a formula-fed baby may not tolerate the type of formula used in a cereal.

Lambert-Lagacé’s first choice among commercial cereal types would be whole grain organic (no formula added). Her second choice, would be a plain, refined cereal “that doesn’t contain hydrogenated fat [trans fats].”

Current baby cereal trends reflect both of Lambert-Lagacé’s recommendations. For instance, in 2001 Heinz launched an organic line of baby food which includes three types of plain cereal (no formula added), and in the spring, President’s Choice introduced six new plain organic (no formula added) cereals. Nestlé, the leader in formula-fortified baby cereal in Canada, launched three plain cereals in March.

Meanwhile, Milupa has 14 different “with formula” baby cereals.

Cereals designed for older babies often contain not one added fruit, but several, such as Milupa’s Step 3 Mixed Cereals–Fruits containing apple, pear, banana, orange and apricot. Montreal dietitian Silvia Bonome says, “I don’t see the purpose in buying cereal with fruit. You can mix it yourself.”

And if you check labels, many of the cereals designed for older babies contain added sugar, warns Lambert-Lagacé.

Time for Dessert?
The sweet names on the labels sound tantalizing — Bumbleberry Pie, Tutti Frutti dessert, Hawaiian Delight — but does baby really need dessert?

“No,” says dietitian Daina Kalnins of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and co-author of Better Baby Food. “Babies should get their sweets from fruits, and there is no room for dessert.” Kalnins has co-written a book on how to make your own baby food, yet sees “nothing wrong with commercial baby food” — with just a few caveats. She includes baby food desserts, juice and toddler biscuits on her “don’t list.” (She includes juice because she’d rather have babies and young children eating fruit instead and drinking water when thirsty. And biscuits, warns Kalnins, usually contain added sugar.)

Dietitian and author Louise Lambert-Lagacé of Montreal agrees, saying, “Babies don’t need desserts.”

Heinz has 17 dessert products; 10 are designed for babies from six months up. Of those, all but one have water as the first ingredient and three have sugar as the second ingredient. Strained Blueberry Dessert and Junior Blueberry Dessert contain two different sugars, granulated and brown.

Pablum also carries desserts. President’s Choice and Earth’s Best do not include baby food desserts in their product lines.

Learn the language
While ingredient lists on starter and beginner puréed vegetables, fruits and meats are short, many other products contain a long list — especially baby cereals. Here are some of the ingredients you should know about:

Modified starch. In 1995, modified starch in baby foods came under attack. An article published by the Center for Science in Public Interest or CSPI (a US-based nutrition advocacy group) criticized the use of modified starches in Gerber baby food, saying it was “cheating babies” by using modified starch as “filler.” Even though studies revealed that modified starch contained nothing harmful for babies, many brands pulled it from their products. Heinz Canada places yellow “No added modified starch” banners on some of its jars, but Pablum (owned by Heinz) sells a strained blueberry and grape dessert from six months up, which lists modified cornstarch as its second ingredient.

Meanwhile, Heinz continues to use starch in many of its products, such as strained custard (contains rice starch and tapioca starch) and toddler pasta and meat sauce (contains rice starch). President’s Choice adds flour to many of its products, such as the lentil flour in organic strained vegetables and lentils, and brown rice flour in organic strained peas and brown rice.

Manufacturers use starch or flour to thicken or stabilize baby foods. Starch is a more refined product than flour. When starch is modified through processing, the molecular structure is changed resulting in a starch that holds water better. (Ironically, manufactures say they can use less modified starch and get the same results as with normal starch. This means today’s baby food may contain more starch — just not modified — than ever.)

Trans fats.Trans fats such as hydrogenated canola oil are listed in the ingredients of both Heinz Rice Cereal with 35 percent infant formula and Heinz All-in-One Rice Cereal with apple and pear. According to its label, Heinz Step 1 rice cereal may contain trans fats with partially hydrogenated sunflower oil (or rice bran oil or canola oil). Montreal dietitian and author Louise Lambert-Lagacé warns, “Trans fats should be on our no-no list for children and adults.”

Experts agree that trans fats can increase the risk of heart disease, but nutritionist Alison Stephen, national spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, says, “Parents should be aware that trans fats are found in these cereals, but the amount is low.” Stephen says it’s more important for parents to pay attention to the amount of trans fats in the diets of school-aged children.

Vitamins and minerals. Baby cereals are fortified with a large amount of vitamins and minerals. Determining what is a nutrient and what are preservatives or additives can confuse even the most discerning parent. For example, dicalcium phosphate and tricalcium phosphate are both types of calcium. Reduced iron, electrolyte iron and ferrous fumarate are types of iron. Ascorbic acid is vitamin C, niacinamide is niacin, riboflavin is vitamin B2, and thiamine mononitrate is vitamin B1.

Prebiotics. All of the Nestlé baby cereals contain two ingredients on the label that you won’t find in other brands: inulin and oligofructose. Called prebiotics, inulin and oligofructose are fibre-like substances that stimulate the growth of good bacteria in a baby’s stomach, which in turn, helps healthy digestion. Prebiotics occur naturally in human breastmilk and can also be found in fruits and vegetables such as banana and asparagus. Lambert-Lagacé points out that prebiotics are also found in whole grains.

The Organic Option
Prices are dropping and the selection keeps growing. If ever there were a time to raise an organic baby, this is it. But should you?

Making the choice to “go organic” is a personal one, says dietitian Daina Kalnins from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, noting that there is no nutritional difference between organic and conventional baby food. Even Earth’s Best, an organic baby food company, agrees. However, according to Joe Lawer of Earth’s Best in Vancouver, “organic baby food addresses a new mom’s concern for safety in the food supply.” He points out that “pound for pound, babies consume two to four times more fruits and vegetables than adults, and are exposed to a higher proportion of potential contaminants.”

When buying organic baby food, look for a statement on the label verifying that the product is “certified organically grown” to ensure that you are buying the real McCoy.

Read more:
7 family dinners to puree into baby food>
What finger foods to feed your baby – and what foods to avoid>
The do’s and don’ts of safe formula feeding>

This article was originally published on June 1, 2012.

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