Inventing Baby Food Book Review
Ever wander down the baby food aisle at Target wondering how all of those colorful concoctions and purees in pouches got to be such big business? If you're curious about the origin story of our babies' first bites, then you'll love the book Inventing Baby Food by Amy Bentley.
Inventing an Industry
Bentley is a historian and Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. In Inventing Baby Food, she "explores how the invention of commercial baby food shaped American notions of infancy and influenced the evolution of parental and pediatric care."
If you think about it, babies have been learning how to eat since the beginning of time. But we've really only had a commercialized baby food industry for just over 100 years.
In her book, Dr. Bentley explores how little jars of baby food came to be so commonplace in postwar America. She points out that the ability to buy baby food helped "resolve a multitude of problems in the domestic sphere" in that they:
- Reduced anxiety about nutrition and health
- Helped caretakers feel empowered
- Offered incredible convenience to women entering the workforce
Wild Swings about Starting Solid Food Guidelines
As a mom of 5 small kids and a dietitian working in the family feeding and nutrition space, I found the history of the recommendations about when to start solid foods fascinating.
Many of my clients are frustrated by the general guideline to start their baby on solid food somewhere "between 4-6 months of age". A two-month gap is a pretty big portion of a little baby's life!
But in the book I was floored to learn that "...by the mid-1950s, the age at which infants were commonly first fed solids had fallen to four to six weeks, from a prewar five to six months". And some doctors were even pushing for solids just days after a baby's birth!
Check out the graph below - which I love that one of Bentley's children made for her book!
Baby Food as a Status Symbol
We all take different approaches when it comes to starting our babies on solid foods. Some of us will go the iron-fortified white rice cereal by spoon route, while others bypass purees entirely in favor of baby-led weaning. Some parents try a combination approach of introducing food by spoon and encouraging self-feeding at the same time.
Whatever your preference, I bet you will find this fact from Inventing Baby Food pretty amazing though: by the 1970's, American babies were fed - on average - 72 dozen jars of baby food in the first year of life!
At that time it was commonplace for manufacturers to add salt, sugar and fat to baby food. In the book Bentley writes that Gerber even admitted that these additives were included to satisfy the parents - and not really to reflect ingredients that a baby needs (or should have).
But if you put that 72 dozen jars of baby food into perspective, considering today's pouches that cost about $2/pouch, that's almost $2,000 of baby food in the first year of life!
Pouches Take the Stage
Fast forward to today where pouches are the major player in the baby food aisle. Bentley point out that "pouches represented a major change in the baby food delivery system." And by 2013, one-third of all baby food products were packaged in pouches.
Why has the pouch become such a baby food "game changer"? Bentley notes, "...in part because it functions to eliminate the iconic feeding position of babies seated in a high chair being fed with a spoon."
As our attitudes and understanding about how to feed a baby evolve, it helps to look backward and see how far we've come. Your pediatrician isn't likely to be recommending solids just a few days after birth...but the book Inventing Baby Food also makes us ponder whether we really need any of the items in the still-burgeoning baby food aisle!