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Baby Foods: What's Best for Baby?

We all know we’re experimental guinea pigs for the food industry. The thousands of additives and pesticides that form part of our daily fare mean that our bodies are storehouses of chemical toxins. The long-term health consequences of this situation are totally unknown—and that’s official. Even the UK government’s food experts admit this sad fact, while pointing out the potential hazards of the ‘cocktail effect’: how the different artificial chemicals in our food might combine to produce even deadlier unknown toxins (Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment. Risk Assessment of Mixtures of Pesticides and Similar Substances. Food Standards Agency, 2002).

Well, we’re adults and we should be aware of the risks we run. But babies aren’t.

Surprisingly, it now turns out that baby foods have been contaminated with pesticides for years, exposing infants to danger at the very time when their bodies are most vulnerable. As recently as seven years ago, a UK government-backed investigation found traces of the pesticide carbendazim in baby foods (Pesticide Residues Committee, 30 November 2000). This well-known hormone-disrupting chemical has even been linked to genital abnormalities in male babies (Schettler T et al. Generations at Risk: Reproductive Health and the Environment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

In 2002, the regulations were tightened up, effectively banning pesticide contamination in baby foods. Manufacturers now face legal action if they transgress. However, in practice, this doesn’t mean that baby foods are guaranteed as being pesticide-free. That’s because the current analytical technology can only detect pesticides above a level of 0.01 per cent. That sounds like a very tiny amount, but even that—for a baby—is too much.

So, although pesticide residues seem to be less of a problem than they used to be, it’s still one reason to avoid conventional manufactured baby foods. But there are other reasons, too.

Baby foods are a $1.25-billion-a-year business. American babies are the biggest market, consuming an average of 600 pots of baby food in the first year of life—more than twice as many as in Europe.

The marketing is intense. US manufacturer Gerber recently launched a $30 million campaign using the slogan: ‘For learning to eat smart, right from the start’. Mothers are assured that Gerber foods are “specially formulated to help your baby develop a variety of tastes for healthier foods”. Heinz claims that it uses “only the best ingredients for the best nutrition”.

So, how does baby food stack up to the claims made for it? And exactly what’s in it? In fact, it’s actually rather difficult to tell. The pureed, strained and blended contents of typical baby foods don’t reveal many secrets—and neither do the labels. As manufacturers are required only to list contents, but not percentages, it’s hard to know exactly what your baby’s being given. Take, for example, a ‘Chicken and Noodles Dinner’: how much chicken and how much noodle? You’ve no way of knowing.

Fortunately, however, there are sophisticated analytical techniques that can chemically probe the pureed baby-food mess and, if not work out the exact ingredients, at least offer a reasonable guess as to what’s in it. For example, the carbohydrate content in a vegetable product is a good indicator of the amount of vegetables it contains. However, this kind of laboratory analysis can be expensive process, one that is way beyond the budgets of most consumer groups.

Nevertheless, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a charitable US organization that specializes in research on food and environmental issues, was willing to carry out this process by testing all baby-food products (for infants under 12 months old) on the US market. Their main findings are fairly damning, particularly those involving foods designed for the older infant (so-called second- and third-stage babies). And it’s the brand leaders that appear to be the most guilty. “Gerber and Heinz dilute many second- and third-stage fruits and vegetables with water and starchy fillers, and sweeten them with sugars,” says the CSPI report. “That practice greatly reduces the nutrient density of those foods compared to the pure fruit or vegetable product.”

In contrast, other manufacturers such as Beech-Nut, Earth’s Best and Growing Healthy don’t add sugar or starchy fillers to any of their products, which only goes to show that these additives are simply not necessary to make a palatable product.

CSPI also found that the worst products were those that featured fruit with tapioca. The combo sounds healthy enough, but the tapioca is simply chemically modified starch. It also enables manufacturers to legitimately increase the volume of starch, thereby reducing the fruit content. The labelling is often misleading, too, with the name of the fruit ingredient written in large lettering while the word ‘tapioca’ is much smaller, which would appear to suggest that the major ingredient is fruit. But it generally isn’t.

So it’s no surprise to learn that Gerber’s ‘Prunes with Tapioca’ provides less than half the nutrients of the original fruit, and that Heinz’s ‘Bananas with Tapioca’ provides less than a third.

Beech-Nut, the US manufacturer that’s been in the business of baby foods for 75 years, is an interesting example of a company that has cleaned up its products. Around 25 years ago, they stopped making fruit with tapioca products, choosing to offer only full-fruit products. As the company itself admits, this has meant it’s had to seriously up the fruit content of these products.

But it’s the vegetable-based baby foods that are the most shocking and, again, Heinz and Gerber are the major culprits.

Both manufacturers offer what they call a ‘mixed vegetables’ product although, in truth, these should really be called ‘watery carrots’, as the major ingredient of each of these company’s offerings is water, and the next main ingredient is carrots. The only other vegetable ingredients are ‘potato solids’ (in Gerber’s), and squash and ‘potato flour’ (in Heinz’s). The rest of the contents is starchy filler. These fillers are not only cheap, but they also help to cover up the fact that the major ingredient is water—as any cook knows, just a pinch of flour or starch can soak up a lot of liquid.

Nevertheless, high-volume production and short-changing the consumer don’t have to go hand-in-hand. Other manufacturers, such as Beech-Nut and Growing Healthy, don’t use starchy fillers—with clear benefits in terms of nutrition. CSPI found that these company’s baby foods contain roughly twice the amounts of protein, vitamins and minerals found in Gerber and Heinz products.

So, the message is, if you’re tempted to buy commercial baby foods, scrutinize the labels first. The tell-tale, no-no ingredients are added sugars, modified food starches, and wheat, rice and other flours. Having weeded those products out, you should select the brands with the most calories (and, therefore, the most food) per unit weight.

Better still, why not make your own baby food? Although the manufacturers would have us believe otherwise, there’s nothing magical about their baby-food products; they’re simply infant-friendly versions of what we ourselves eat as adults. The key difference is, of course, the pesticides. The regulations for the permitted levels of toxic residues in adult foods are far laxer than those for babies, which is why you may have no option but to buy organic.

However, if DIY is not your thing, happily there is an increasing number of organic baby foods available on the market today—and it’s growing. Over a third of all baby foods now sold in Britain are organic, and it’s a boom sector in the US, too.

For our test sample, we selected six of the leading organic baby-food brands available in the UK, and chose between one and three products per manufacturer, scoring them for quality of contents, how good they taste, their overall ‘green’ credentials and pricetag. We also tested them among a ‘test’ baby for palatability.

Overall, we found that the quality was good, with virtually all of the products being both GM (genetically modified)- and gluten-free, with no added sugar or salt and, of course, free of additives and pesticides. What we didn’t expect to find, however, was that a few organic manufacturers have also gone down the Heinz and Gerber road, adding not only water, but even fillers to their products.


THE PRODUCTS


ELLA'S KITCHEN
www.ellaskitchen.co.uk
Price: up to £0.89 for 120 g
Rating: *****


This funky British company has a simple product philosophy: to “prioritize health and taste” by never using anything other than the most nutritional organic produce, a claim that is backed up by its products’ lists of ingredients, which contain not a trace of added water or fillers. The packaging is unique, with the food contained in a squeezable pouch. Our panel tried their ‘Apples & Bananas’ and ‘Broccoli, Pear & Peas’, and rated them the clear favourites. “Love this make!” was the panel’s verdict—and in this case, baby did, too, as he enthusiastically self-fed himself by squeezing the pouch. As for cost, this works out to £0.74/g—not the most expensive, but not the cheapest either.


ORGANIX
www.organix.com
Price: up to £1.69 for 400 g
Rating: ****


“We’ve created the ‘no junk’ promise” is Organix’s less-than-catchy slogan for its range of fruit and cereal products. Certainly, there’s nothing in them that’s obviously junk, as expected from an all-organic product. But many of its products contain a high proportion of rice flakes which, although nutritious, can act as bulking agents. We tested the ‘Pear & Raspberry’ product, the major ingredient of which, curiously, is apples—another cheap bulking agent perhaps? Our panel liked the products, though: “great make, we love these” was the verdict. And good value for the cost, too, at £0.42/g, the least expensive of our sample.


Babynat
www.babynat.co.uk
Price: up to £0.89 for 130 g
Rating: ****


This French range of organic baby foods comes with impeccable credentials. Its ‘Organic Pears’, for example, is exactly what it says—100-per-cent pears and nothing else. Babynat obtains its raw materials from organic producers across Europe and takes pride in the ‘transparency’ of its sources. We also sampled its ‘Organic Provençale Vegetables’, which is chock-full of organic Dutch carrots, French potatoes and parsley, plus 3 per cent Spanish olive oil. However, despite the apparent high quality, our panel wasn’t impressed. “Boring” was the general response, and our test Mum hated the vegetables, complaining of a nasty smell and strange aftertaste. But full marks for quality—with a middling pricetag of £0.68/g.


HiPP Organic
www.hipp.co.uk
Price: up to £0.69 per 125-g jar
Rating: ****


This long-established German baby-foods manufacturer first went organic in the 1950s. Somewhat confusingly, however, the company appears to offer two levels of quality. For example, their ‘William Christ Pears’ is made up of 90-per-cent organic pears and pear juice, but it also contains rice fillers (even some non-organic ones) and water. On the other hand, it also offers a ‘Purely Fruits’ range that is 100-per-cent organic fruit—period. And curiouser and curiouser still, the higher-quality product is around the same price, weight for weight, as the inferior one. Another product in its inferior range is the ‘Mixed Vegetable Medley’, which is only 73-per-cent vegetables, with the rest being water and sunflower oil. Nevertheless, these products were well-liked by our testers, especially the 100-per-cent fruit one. They’re good value for money, too, particularly the higher-quality range, at £0.55/g, the second least-expensive offerings.


Plum Baby
www.plum-baby.co.uk
Price: up to £2.29 for 200 g
Rating: ***


Another product line from France, these are, however, the brainchild of a British mum, Susie Willis, who says she spent two years researching infant nutrition before going into baby-food production. Although she claims not to use bulking agents, all her products appear to include quinoa, a South American cereal-like vegetable with seeds that are high in protein, but which can also serve as thickeners. It’s possible they’re included to cover up the added water, which is second in the ingredients list of the two products we tested. In general, however, our panel liked these offerings, and reserved their major criticism for the cost—a whopping £1.15/g—and the excessive packaging.


Holle
www.holle.com.au
Price: up to £1.29 per 190-g jar
Rating: **


This Austrian company is probably the world’s oldest organic baby-foods manufacturer, having been founded as long ago as 1933. Being Germanic, they are also steeped in the biodynamic agricultural tradition begun by Rudolf Steiner, which means that many of the ingredients are sourced from biodynamic farms. Its ‘Mixed Vegetables’, for example, contains biodynamic carrots and spinach, plus organic potatoes, tomatoes and leeks. However, surprisingly for such an upmarket product, 15-per-cent of the contents is water. The ‘Apple & Bilberry’ product is even worse, with a fruit content of only 58 per cent, and a high proportion of water and even rice starch as a filler. Not surprisingly, our taste-testers weren’t impressed: “boring” was the overall verdict. As for value for money, this works out to a middling £0.68/g, the same as Babynat’s products.

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