The Scoop on Food

Paleo Is Only the Latest Baby Food Trend

Baby food puree
You may have seen the news a few weeks ago that publisher of a new baby food cookbook in Australia cancelled the book due to fears that the recipes might actually be harmful to infants. As one would guess from the title, the book, Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way promises to instruct parents how to feed their babies within the confines of the paleo diet, the healthy eating plan du jour. Written by Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans, the book features a recipe for a chicken liver and bone broth, which the Public Health Association of Australia fears parents may substitute for formula or breast milk. Heather Yeatman, president of the group said, "In my view, there's a very real possibility that a baby may die if this book goes ahead."

Yikes! While it's hard to talk about anything once the specter of infant death has been raised, another potential problem with Bubba Yum Yum is the paleo practice of omitting entire food groups such as grains, dairy, beans and lentils from a child's diet. Research has shown that the more flavors babies are exposed to, the more likely they are to eat a variety of foods when they are older children. Depriving a baby of whole swaths of cuisine—and healthful ones at that—may be setting a child (and parents) up for years of frustration at the dinner table.

(Evans has decided to publish the book independently; it should be out this month. Be wary.)

Most of my friends have been shocked that anyone would consider feeding their baby based on the diet trends of the day. But after reading Amy Bentley's fascinating book Inventing Baby Food, I realized we've been doing that for decades, ever since the late 1920s when Gerber became the first mass-produced brand of commercial baby food sold in grocery stores.

According to Bentley, Gerber found a public ready to accept commercial food, thanks to the growing understanding of the importance of fruits and vegetables in a baby's diet, an acceptance of canned goods, and a general uptick in "progress" including more refrigerators and washing machines. The company turned to women's magazines like Ladies' Home Journal (R.I.P.) to make its pitch, convincing moms that Gerber's "scientific, wholesome" product was actually superior to anything made at home. The persuasion worked. In 1930 Gerber produced 842,000 cans of baby food. Just two years later, the company made 2,259,818 cans, and this was despite the Great Depression.

Store-bought baby food reached its peak in the 1950s, when feeding babies from cans often began at just two to three months of age and the use of formula became common. This was the decade that famously saw entire meals made out of (often ill-suited) combinations of jarred and packaged foods for dinner parties. Commercial baby food rode the packaged foods wave, and like much homemade food, homemade baby food was considered hopelessly old-fashioned. In 1957 it was estimated that 90 percent of mothers fed their infants processed baby food. Bentley says that "Solids, particularly commercially prepared baby food, were modern, life-giving, and efficient, the latter an especially valued quality in postwar America."

Baby food in the '50s may have been efficient, but it also frequently contained sugar, salt, and MSG. In the 1970s a growing environmental awareness and suspicion of processed foods opened the door for a small resurgence in homemade baby food. And, congressional inquiries into the safety and wholesomeness of commercial baby food prompted most manufacturers to remove salt and sugar from their products. Baby food was changing with the times.

Today, baby food continues to evolve. Manufacturers are losing market share to good old-fashioned homemade baby food, a trend that reflects our society's growing enthusiasm for less-processed, "clean", and "real" foods that have made websites like 100 Days of Real Food and, yes, even the paleo diet, such juggernauts. According to a 2014 New York Times article the sale of processed baby food has been declining since 2005.

Today's parents have so many options when it comes to feeding their babies – from traditional purees in jars to organic blends in pouches to forgoing the puree stage altogether, a practice known as baby-led weaning. How we feed our children reflects our values, so it's no surprise we want our babies to eat like us, whether that's thumbing our nose at the trendy clean food movement in favor of convenient store-bought jars or blending organic ingredients we pick up at the farmer's market. Chances are, babies will turn out just fine whichever route parents take – just skip the bone broth in the baby's bottle.

Would you consider feeding your baby or toddler the paleo way?

Jenna Helwig is the food editor at Parents and the author of Real Baby Food: Easy, All-Natural Recipes for Your Baby and Toddler. Follow her on Twitter.

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Image: Baby food puree via Shutterstock