Introducing vegetables in the first year of life: does commercial baby food support our public health guidance?
Dr Helen Crawley, Director First Steps Nutrition Trust.
If we’re going to turn into a nation of vegetable lovers all the evidence points to the need for us to start young.
Public health guidance globally, and nationally, is consistent on the importance of babies being exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life. At around 6 months babies are developmentally ready for solid food, and if they have been breastfed will have been subtly introduced to a range of flavours via their mother’s diet. However for all babies our recommendations are that the best first tastes, complementary to breastmilk (or infant formula), are savoury vegetable tastes. The aim of introducing solids is to accustom babies to handling food in the mouth and swallowing and to introduce a range of tastes and textures. Babies develop at their own pace and parents who responsively feed will follow their baby’s cues around the types of foods they can manage and the independence they want to show in eating. The aim of introducing vegetables as first tastes is that infants learn to recognise and enjoy a range of flavours, including those that are more bitter, and evidence suggests that this early introduction of a range of flavours supports better food choices in young children, who will go on to enjoy a range of vegetables as they get older. It is well established that to encourage infants and children to eat a range of foods tasting things multiple (up to ten) times may be needed to establish a food as a liked food.
So are the baby foods on offer up to the job? The short answer is no. Our recent survey of commercial baby food marketed in the first year of life showed that 3% were ‘vegetable only’ commercial foods, and those that are available are sweet vegetables such as carrots, sweet potato and parsnip. After the ultra- macerating and heat treatment required commercial foods are likely to be sweeter than homemade versions (and this treatment will also impact on some nutrients).
This commercial baby food market has evolved in the 21st century into one where foods are still predominantly smooth and sweet, but where pouches have replaced jars making the contents invisible to the eye but with enticing graphics and wholesome claims making it difficult for families to compare commercial and homemade food choices. The majority of foods that are marketed as vegetable choices are in fact however, combinations of fruits and vegetables. Many of those that appear to be vegetable in nature are predominantly apple or pear puree. For example a product called ‘Broccoli, pears and peas’ has 79% pear puree and only 7% broccoli; a product called ‘Red peppers, sweet potatoes and apples’ has 78% apple puree and only 11% red peppers. There is no evidence that mixing vegetable and fruit tastes helps infants accept vegetable flavours, but apple and pear puree is chosen as a cheap, easily pureed component and provides a consistent sweet taste to baby food. Where vegetables are used in greater amounts, carrot is the predominant choice – again because it is cheaper, easily purees and is sweet in taste. Commercial baby foods do not offer the authentic vegetable tastes and textures that support a baby moving on to healthy family foods.
The cost of commercial baby food is also high compared with the low cost of giving a baby a small amount of mashed or whole soft cooked vegetable as part of a family meal. Pouches are the most expensive way of buying baby food, and the four most popular brands charge between 90p to £1.29 for 100g of baby food in a pouch. If you prepare 100g of organic carrots at home this would cost less than 20p and would look and taste like carrots. The amount served can be tailored for each baby if food is cooked at home reducing food waste, the texture can be offered to suit each baby’s stage of development and a baby can see others in the family eating the same food, offering important role modelling for eating well. Baby food pouches are also not easily recyclable and contribute to landfill. What should be a simple offer of vegetables to a baby making his first steps into family meals has been corrupted to something expensive to families and the environment.
For our children to be saying ‘peas (and other vegetables) please’ then families, child care workers and health professionals need to encourage simple, home cooked and raw vegetables as first foods.
To find out more about commercial baby foods in the UK see http://www.firststepsnutrition.org/newpages/Infants/baby_foods_in_the_UK.html
To find out how to encourage babies to eat well in the first year of life see http://www.firststepsnutrition.org/newpages/Infants/first_year_of_life.html