Nutrition is so important and particularly so in the first years of life.
Seeing the advertisements, it appears that a wide range of companies is making nutritious, health-promoting baby food.
However, this isn’t fully accurate.
In fact, many of the ingredients in commercial baby food are ultra-processed, with links to a variety of health problems.
Furthermore, some of these foods contain contaminants such as heavy metals and pesticides.
This article will first look at the negative side of commercial baby foods — firstly baby jar foods and then baby formula.
Following this, the article will examine some healthier options.
Baby Food and Nutrient Density
There are several problems regarding commercial baby food.
First of all, here is a look at the nutritional values.
- A study comparing all 479 commercially available baby foods in the UK found that 65% are sweetened. 79% of these foods were spoonable baby jar foods, but similar homemade foods had more than double the nutrients. The researchers concluded that the majority of the products “do not serve the intended purpose” of providing nutritious meals to infants (1).
- A recent study on the entire commercial baby food range in the US shows that “the vast majority” of products contain added sugar (2).
- Commercial baby foods “mainly consist of sweet fruits and vegetables” like mango, banana, and sweet potatoes. As a result, they are “unlikely to encourage a preference for bitter tasting vegetables or non-sweet food” (3).
- In Australia, 29% of baby foods contain synthetic vitamins and minerals. The “vast majority are fruit-based products,” and they “have relatively high sugar content” (4).
The Impact of Sweet Taste Perception
To be honest, the fact that commercial baby food is lacking in nutritional value isn’t surprising.
Homemade foods incorporating fresh ingredients are much more likely to provide beneficial nutrients than processed mixes.
These commercial baby foods also primarily focus on sweet taste.
And unfortunately, this emphasis on sweet-tasting foods can have an adverse effect in future life.
From the time we are born, the foods we eat shape our taste preferences.
In the modern world, children already have enough dietary pitfalls to avoid without being trained to prefer a sweet taste.
Harmful Ingredients in Baby Jar Foods
Have you seen how much a jar of baby food costs?
Given the price, you’d expect them to be full of the very best quality ingredients.
Conversely, commercial baby jar foods often contain sketchy ingredients that are harmful to health.
Yes, the same stuff that’s used by the fast food industry to cook fries is also in many baby jar foods.
The oil of choice in these products is canola oil, which is an ultra-processed industrial oil.
In the first place, the manufacturing process to make this oil is extremely harsh and uses solvents, deodorizers, and even bleach.
Secondly, the extreme heat the production process uses often damages any beneficial nutrients in the oil.
Seeing sugar on the back of a jar isn’t so surprising, but it’s shocking to see how much some brands contain.
For example, look at the baby food on the right. Apparently, it has “no added sugar.”
However, if you look at the ingredients you can see a combination of grape juice concentrate, peach concentrate, more grape concentrate, and then a bunch of thickeners (flour) and preservatives.
In other words, this whole jar is full of carbs (total: 35g) and sugar (25g) and little else. The product is 100% fat-free and contains only 2g protein.
All in all, it’s not real food. It is fruit juice concentrate mixed with flour.
Refined Sugar and Children’s Health
In recent years, the food industry’s message that sugar is a positive source of energy for children is on its deathbed.
Sugar is an entirely non-essential ingredient that has negative health impacts.
For instance, a 2015 study on children with obesity found that taking sugar out of the diet (while keeping calories the same) led to significant decreases in blood sugar, insulin, triglycerides, and blood pressure — in only nine days (7).
Make Your Own!
Instead of paying a premium price for a mixture of grape and pineapple concentrates, it is easy to make a spoonable baby food at home.
Sure, it’s a little more time-consuming, but there are no mystery ingredients, and you can avoid all the additives, preservatives, and possible contaminants.
First of all, using an electronic baby food maker makes it simple.
With this, you can puree any number of nutritious foods to make a variety of spoonable feeds.
For some great ideas, the Paleo Mom has a handy table with ingredient ideas and at what age to introduce each food.
Note: Not all mothers can breastfeed, and formula can play a role in this situation. But there is a clear difference between a healthy formula and some of the poorer choices.
Out of all commercial baby food, some formula products contain relatively unhealthy ingredients.
In fact, it’s not unusual to see ingredients such as;
- Industrial vegetable oils
- Sugar and corn syrup (in vast quantities)
- Refined flours
To demonstrate this, here is a look at one of the available products.
Similac Soy Powder Formula
Admittedly, this is a soy formula, so it purposefully doesn’t include milk.
In other words: this is specifically designed for babies who have allergies or sensitivities to cows milk.
However, just take a look at the ingredients, and you can see that the majority of this product is sugar and oil; 76% to be precise.
A further 14% is soy protein, and then the remaining 10% is a mixture of preservatives and vitamins and minerals.
Corn Syrup and Sugar = 49%
The primary ingredient of this product is corn syrup, which represents 39% of the product by weight.
Next, sugar accounts for a further 10%.
Simple sugars are necessary for babies — the fact that breast milk is about 40% sugar (lactose) is a good indication of this.
However, this refined sugar, usually made from GMO corn and sugar cane, provides glucose and fructose rather than lactose.
Various Oils = 27%
Aside from the sugar, the next major ingredient in this formula is vegetable oil — there are three different kinds;
- Coconut oil
- High-oleic safflower oil
- Soybean oil
While coconut oil is no problem, soybean oil has a host of negative studies behind it.
In a 2015 study, soybean oil was found to be “more obesogenic and diabetogenic” than fructose (9).
Unfortunately, soybean oil has an extremely harsh industrial production process. It is in almost all processed food—and it’s in many commercial baby food formulas too.
Regarding high oleic safflower oil, this oil is probably health neutral. It is still an ultra-processed oil and processing mostly strips it of its beneficial components. There are certainly better oils around.
However, high-oleic vegetable oils are much more stable against oxidation than their regular counterparts and contain a healthier fatty acid profile.
Some Problems With Commercial Baby Food
We should choose baby food carefully for some of the following reasons:
- Baby and infant formulas available at retail have no FDA regulation.
- Harmful contaminants such as rocket fuel and heavy metals have been found in baby foods. A study shows that infants who exclusively feed on formula have a 7.5x higher urinary arsenic level than breastfed babies (10).
- Synthetic additives in commercial baby food can be problematic, such as laboratory-made folic acid.
- Infant formula often features genetically modified (GMO) sugar and refined vegetable oil. Despite being non-GMO, organic products tend to have the same ingredients.
- High-heat processing damages the formula which results in the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). In fact, commercial infant formulas have a “70-fold higher level of a major AGE than human breast milk” (11, 12, 13).
- Many organic baby food formulas contain brown rice syrup. Following concerns over the potential arsenic contamination of rice, a study showed that using brown rice syrup “may introduce significant concentrations of arsenic” into the diet. Given that babies eat the same formula several times per day, this is a cause for concern (14).
- Pesticides and even veterinary drugs have been found in commercial baby foods. Also, pesticide residues are present in over 60% of those foods available at retail in Spain and the UK (15, 16)
Breastfed Babies Are Healthier
First of all, for mothers who can — breastfeeding is always the healthier choice compared to a processed formula.
Studies show that individuals who feed on mother’s milk as a baby enjoy better health and improvements in lifelong immunity.
However, for mom’s unable to nurse their baby, there are still healthy options available.
Wholesome Baby Formula: Healthier Options
It is easy to complain about poor quality baby food formulas. But this isn’t very helpful if we don’t know how to find healthier options.
So, here is a look at some better choices that we can either buy or make ourselves.
Commercial Baby Food Formula – Nanny Care Infant 1
This formula from Nanny Care is not perfect, but it has a much healthier ingredient profile than the usual commercial offering.
First of all, there is no soybean oil, and it is entirely free of added sugar, soy, and corn syrup.
Here is a look at the ingredients.
Goat Milk Solids
The main ingredient is goat milk solids.
Experts believe goat milk to be a closer match to human breast milk than cows milk. Additionally, studies show it to be more digestible and less allergenic (20).
Approximately 7% of all babies have an allergy specifically to cow milk protein, making goat milk a viable alternative.
Vegetable Oils – High-oleic Sunflower, Rapeseed, Sunflower
There are no commercially available baby food formulas without vegetable oils. High oleic sunflower oil is one of the healthier oils, and at least there is no soybean oil in this product.
Other ingredients in the formula include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and preservatives (citric acid and a vitamin E-based antioxidant).
Overall, the ingredient profile is much cleaner than the vast majority of products on the market.
Let’s compare the first seven ingredients to the soy formula we looked at earlier;
|Nanny Care First Infant Milk||Similac Soy Powder Formula|
|Pasteurized goat milk solids||Corn syrup solids|
|Lactose (from milk)||Soy protein isolate|
|High oleic sunflower oil||High oleic safflower oil|
|Sunflower oil||Soybean oil|
|Vitamins||C. cohni oil|
For me, the first five ingredients are key; breast milk naturally contains whole milk—not corn syrup. And sugar and soybean oil are two of the unhealthiest ingredients in the whole food chain.
Some of the products and recipes covered here may help give children a more nutritious start to life.
And in regard to baby formula, there are many different available options.
But whichever options you choose, it’s important to carefully research and discuss with your pediatrician.
It’s okay to research different options, but for something so important it is best to run it by an expert.
Nutrition is always important in life, and never more so than for a small baby.