Breast milk is the best first source of nutrition for babies. Parents in the UK are encouraged to feed their babies only breast milk during their first six months of life, although formula milk is another option. After six months, solid foods can be gradually introduced, with the aim of providing babies with richer sources of energy and key nutrients (such as iron), as well as a variety of tastes and textures.
These first foods usually include cereals (such as baby rice), vegetables, and fruits, followed by protein-rich foods, such as meats. Parents frequently choose commercially prepared baby foods. A 2010 survey of UK mothers showed that 2 out of 3 gave their baby a shop-bought product as their first food.
However, many parents and health professionals have questions about how well these products meet babies’ early food needs. To explore this, researchers gathered information on 479 baby foods sold in the UK. These represented a wide sample of the foods available. The researchers classified the foods by type, texture, and dominant taste (sweet or savoury), and looked at their nutritional content, including their energy, protein, sugar, iron, and calcium.
Overall, the commercially prepared foods were no higher in energy and key nutrients than breast or formula milk.
Nearly 80 in 100 of the products were ready-made spoonable foods, and about 65 in 100 were sweet. Although babies have a natural preference for sweetness, offering them mainly sweet foods early on could make it more difficult to introduce other flavours later.
The spoonable foods were nearly identical to breast milk in energy content, and their protein was only moderately higher than that of formula milk.
Products containing meat had the highest iron content, but this was no higher than the amount in formula milk.
Dry finger foods, such as rusks, had higher amounts of energy and nutrients than other foods, but they were also particularly high in sugar.
Compared with typical home-made family foods given to babies, savoury spoonable foods had much lower amounts of nutrients, with the exception of iron. The researchers estimated that 50 grams of a spoonable family food would provide the same amount of energy and protein as 100 grams of a similar shop-bought product.
How reliable is the research?
This was a large survey of the baby foods sold in the UK. It should provide a reliable overview of what products are currently available, and how they compare with breast and formula milk. However, the comparisons with typical home-made foods were based on only a small number of common family foods, such as minced meat, chicken, mashed potatoes, and stewed apples. This may make these findings less reliable.
What does this mean for me?
This study suggests that commercially produced baby foods may not offer the extra energy and nutrients babies aged six months and older need as they transition from a milk-only diet.
Mashed or finely cut up home-made foods may provide a better source of nutrients, as well as more varied tastes and textures. However, you may need to adjust how you prepare some of these foods to avoid added sugar and salt. The researchers suggest that parents should be encouraged to move their baby onto home-prepared foods, especially later in the first year of life.
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