A new study out of the UK suggests that store bought baby foods might be only half as nutritious as those ones families prepare at home.
Conventional wisdom says that store bought “spoonable” solid foods can be formulated to be more nutritionally dense than breast milk so as to give weaning infants the optimal nutritional profile they need as they grow, and that they are superior to anything that can be cooked up at home.
The researchers employed a cross-sectional study to compare manufactured foods (based on manufacturing information) with breast milk, formula milk and homemade weaning foods such as mashed banana, potato, mashed chicken and stewed apple.
They first identified the four main manufacturers of infant food in the UK between October 2010 and February 2011 by looking at sales figures obtained in previous market research. Those four companies included Heinz, Cow & Gate, HiPP Organic and Boots. The researchers also identified two smaller organizations which provided organic baby foods: Ella’s Kitchen and Organix.
The researchers, using information gleaned from the manufacturer’s website or as a result of direct communication with the manufacturer, assessed nutritional profiles for the foods across a range of areas including: energy (kJ or kcal), protein (g), carbohydrate (g), fat (g), sugar (g), salt, iron (mg) and calcium (mg).
Using samples per 100g, the products were compared to breast milk and the average for baby formula milks, as well as the homemade foods commonly given to weaning children.
What the researchers found was that, in broad terms, the ready-made spoonable baby foods had a significantly lower nutrient profile than the home prepared foods typically given to an infant between 6 to 12 months.
In total, the analysis investigated 462 products. Of those, the savory ready-made spoonable foods performed less well than home made foods with the exception of iron content — which is often added to fortify the store bought varieties, something that is not as easily done at home.
In fact, the analysis showed that 50g of the soft homemade savory foods potentially had the same amount of energy and protein as 100g of the ready-made food.
When it came to sweet spoonable foods (which made up 65% of the total sample which the researchers say is roughly analogous to market trends), the ready made and homemade varieties were about even in terms of nutritional content. However, the family made food tended to have lower protein levels.
When comparing the commercially available rusks and biscuits to homemade varieties, the manufactured varieties tended to come out on top. They were more energy dense and had more iron and calcium. There’s a big but here, though, and that is: many of the products were energy dense (calorific) because they also tended to contain high amounts of sugar, and much more than was found in the homemade varieties. Factor this in and the manufactured foods looked a lot less rosy.
The researchers concluded from all this that, even though food companies bill their products as being specially targeted to serve a child’s nutritional needs during this crucial time in development, overall many of the leading products on the market are no better than home made foods or breast milk, and some are demonstrably worse.
Of course, there were limitations to this study. The study could only assess many of the products based on the information gleaned from the brands’ websites. This may have not been accurate with the product’s nutritional profile being worse or actually better than that information might show. It also surveyed only the leading brands between 2010 and 2011, a relatively small but still significant test group.
Also, the organic baby foods tested herein were at a disadvantage in that they did not (and by law cannot) add any vitamins or minerals to their products over what was already there, meaning it might appear they perform worse even though they only listed using whole foods in their products.
The study, while of course not comprehensive, has raised a number of serious questions.
Many of the manufactured foods are marketed as being suitable for children as young as four months, when traditional advice would say a mother should ideally still be breast feeding. While of course some mothers will have to move on from breast feeding or formula feeding for a variety of reasons, one reason might be simple convenience based on the belief that children are getting a complete nutritional profile. If this is so, parents would be angry to learn that the manufactured products are not giving their children the nutrients that are promised. Why then are baby foods being marketed as fit for four-month-olds?
Perhaps even more interesting, what is the purpose of the high sugar content in many of the foods? Is it simply catering to the needs of the child by making the food more palatable? Is it there to cover up the generally lower energy profile? Or, and perhaps more sinister, is it designed to create a preference toward sweet foods in later life?
The researchers, of course, could not answer those questions in this study but the takeaway seems clear: homemade food used as part of a balanced diet for your baby is probably at least as good as store bought bands, if not better. It’s probably a lot cheaper too.
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