A new study has questioned the nutritonal value of commercially-sold baby food compared to homemade meals. We’ve read the full study to help unravel what this means for us – mums with hungry babies and toddlers…
What were the main findings?
The researchers from Glasgow University discovered that commercially-produced baby food:
- often contains added fruit, which can sweeten the flavour and can contain high levels of natural fruit sugars
- generally has a lower nutritional value than fresh homemade food
So what does this mean for mums?
We’ve gone through the report in more detail below, but first the topline thinking…
The agreed advice is to that your baby needs a varied and balanced diet. Good nutrition depends on your baby experiencing a wide variety of tastes, textures and food types, as well as continued breastmilk or formula – and this may come through a mix of homemade, shop-bought and fresh, raw foods. The key is variety – that way you can ensure your baby is receiving enough key nutrients as well as a healthy range of food experiences.
Some mums will want to only give their babies homemade food and indeed the study recommends giving only home-cooked food in the first year. Other parents will prefer, or need, to give a mix of home and shop-bought.
Neither way will prevent your baby from having natural sugars in his diet.
When you buy a bunch of bananas you can’t tell how much fructose they contain (in fact rather a lot at 21g per 100g according to the study), but you can check the sugar content and other nutritional values on the packaging on baby food. Regulations mean that packaging is now very clear. It means you’ll be able to make informed decisions on what to feed your child.
What was the basis of the study?
Researchers at Glasgow University looked at 479 products from Cow & Gate, Heinz, Boots, Hipp Organic, Ella’s Kitchen and Organix. The nutritional content was taken from each of the companies’ websites and the packaging of the products. This was compared with homemade foods commonly used for infants, such as chicken, minced meat, mashed potatoes, bread, and vegetarian meals.
Why add extra fruit?
It’s well-known by food manufacturers and mums that most babies naturally prefer sweet food. It’s a technique that many parents use – mixing in pear or apple puree into a homemade savoury dish to make it more appealing. Now it seems that food manufacturers often do the same thing – not adding sugar, but adding additional fruit.
After sorting the food into categories including sweet and savoury, the researchers classified two-thirds of the commercial foods targeted at the youngest infants as sweet, due in part to fruit being added to savoury meals. Fruit contains naturally-occuring sugars such as fructose, so while sugar is not being added as an ingredient, it’s still present as fruit sugars.
“An innate preference for sweet foods in babies is well established,” the study reports, “which may explain why sweet ingredients are more likely to be used to make complementary foods more palatable.”
The concern is that foods high in sugars – even natural sugars – can lead to children developing a taste for sweetness, which raises the risk of tooth decay as they grow older. Dr Wright, one of the authors of the paper, which is published in the journal Archives of Diseases in Childhood, explains: “People might think that something sweetened with fruit is healthier, but it’s not. Young babies like sweet food because it tastes like breast milk but it is not moving them on.”
What were the nutritional differences?
The study found that there was almost twice as much iron and protein in homemade meat dishes as in packaged meat baby food. It suggested that this may be due to packaged food having lower meat content compared with homemade equivalents.
Commercial baby food did contain around the same levels of iron and protein as breast or formula milk but, said the study, the main point of weaning from milk to solids is to introduce richer sources of energy, iron and protein.
What do baby food manufacturers say?
The British Specialist Nutrition Association, which represents the baby food manufacturers, states: “Baby foods are carefully prepared to ensure they provide the right balance of nutrients in appropriate amounts for infants and young children. Levels of protein, carbohydrate (including sugars), fat, vitamins and minerals in baby foods are strictly regulated by legislation which is based on advice from European scientific experts.”
Starting to wean – the 4 or 6 months debate
Finally, the study observed that, while many foods were marketed as safe from 4 months old, the Department of Health recommends that parents begin weaning at 6 months old. If you think your child is ready to start weaning, see our checklist to find out. However, if your baby is between 4 and 6 months, always speak to your health visitor or GP before starting.