Branded baby food falls short of home-made fare, but why?

Solids should be introduced to increase energy and nutrients but store-bought foods fall short. Image from shutterstock.com

Commercial baby foods are lower in key nutrients and tend to be sweeter than home-prepared foods, a study published today in the Archives of Disease in Childhood has found.

The researchers, based in Glasgow, collected nutritional information on 479 products including dry foods and ready made foods in jars, sachets, pots and cans. They compared the nutritional value per 100g of the foods to breast milk and typical home-prepared foods.

They found nearly half the foods were targeted at the four months-plus age group and that two-thirds of these foods were classified as sweet foods.

Solids should be introduced to increase the energy and nutrient content of the infant’s diet, in order to facilitate growth and development. But the authors found the energy content of most of the ready-to-feed spoonable products was similar to that of breast and formula milk and much lower than the energy content of a similar home-prepared meal.

If introduced too early, these foods would only substitute for a feed of breast milk which, of course, is a more nutritionally complete food.

Although this work was undertaken in the United Kingdom, a very similar range of products is available in Australia. Commercial foods have proliferated in recent years, with a range of new varieties of fresh, canned, bottled, and organic and frozen foods available at supermarkets.

Many are presented in the ubiquitous “pouches” of smooth food that can be squeezed into the mouth, thus by passing the developmental challenges associated with learning to eat.

Although many of the mixes available are labelled as vegetables and meat, they contain a significant percentage as fruit puree. Water and thickeners are used as additives.

Commercial baby foods have similar levels of energy as breast milk. Image from shutterstock.com

These products are no doubt convenient but home-prepared foods are not only more nutritious, they also make the transition to eating family foods and more lumpy textures easier. Feeding practices such as introducing lumpy foods before ten months of age and consuming family meals have been shown to lead to healthier eating patterns through childhood.

The National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) Infant Feeding Guidelines, released earlier this year, do not specify a particular order of food introduction but they do recommend starting with a variety of complementary foods, including those rich in iron.

The study authors found mothers often started solids when they perceived their child to be hungry. They were therefore concerned about the promotion of infant foods from the age of four months, despite government recommendations to begin solid foods at around six months of age.

This anomaly also occurs in Australia, where foods can be labelled as “suitable from four months of age”, while the current recommendation is to introduce solids at around six months. Naturally this is cause of confusion for many parents.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand has had a proposal to align food labelling with feeding guidelines on the table since 2003. Submissions to FSANZ’s discussion paper closed in July, so hopefully we’ll soon see greater clarity to make it easier for parents to choose healthier options for their infants.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.