Baby food as it is traditionally known—jars of sweet potatoes and cans of rice cereal—didn’t really exist until the 1920s.
According to Amy Bentley, author of Inventing Baby Food, the first solid baby food to appear on the market was invented by a man named Harold Clapp. The story is that when his wife fell ill and couldn't care for their baby, Clapp developed a soup made from beef broth, vegetables, and cereal. When Clapp saw how well his baby did on the soup, he began making big batches and eventually started selling it to other parents via local drugstores.
A few years after Clapp's baby food went on sale in New York pharmacies, Frank and Dan Gerber (father and son) began experimenting with strained baby food at their cannery, the Fremont Canning Company. By 1933, Fremont produced more than 2 million cans of baby food, which included a variety of strained fruits and vegetables, as well as a beef vegetable soup. Recognizing the tremendous opportunity, companies such as Heinz and Beech-Nut quickly followed suit. The Gerber's line of canned baby food became so popular, in fact, that Fremont Canning eventually abandoned all of its other lines of canned food and changed its name to Gerber's Baby Foods.
While the concept of store-bought food specifically made for babies picked up some serious speed in the 1930s, many Americans were still suspicious of canned food, having lived through the days of spoiled and contaminated canned food. To overcome this, Gerber undertook an ambitious advertising campaign to convince parents, dietitians, and pediatricians that their processed baby food was not only nutritionally superior to homemade baby food, but safer. The ad campaign included research—funded by Gerber—that praised the benefits of canned food.
Meanwhile, American mothers began to rely more and more on the advice of doctors and pediatricians for feeding their children. Recognizing this shift, Gerber stepped up its advertising efforts to the medical community, offering their canned baby food free of charge to doctors who requested it.
Future ad campaigns would include messaging to convince parents that homemade baby food was not as safe as commercially-made baby food and that toiling away in the kitchen was not good for mothers...or their babies.
Importantly, many baby food advertisements also encouraged feeding solids at 3 months old, sometimes explicitly in the text, but also visually by the babies depicted in the ads themselves. Not surprisingly, by the 1950s, babies were being fed commercial solid food by just six weeks of age.
The first commercial baby food to hit the market was a vegetable soup with a beef broth base. Other common baby foods in the 1940s included liver, veal, and strained single-ingredient vegetables and fruits. By the 1950s, however, baby food companies increased their focus on taste, adding sugar and artificial flavors, as well as food that was a more consistent, smooth purée. Whereas American babies fed in the 1940s were likely to get significant amounts of iron and protein—as well as some different textures—from commercial baby food, babies in the 1960s and beyond were more likely to experience a sweet, smooth purée. While there is no publicly available information for why baby food companies stopped producing foods like liver and veal, it's not hard to imagine the increased return on investment of sweet purées. Not only were apples, bananas, and sweet potatoes cheaper than meat, they played to a baby's preference for sweet foods.
In 1880, babies were not commonly fed solid food until they were 11 months old, and by 1950, that age plummeted to just 6 weeks old. It wasn't until the 1970s that the medical community realized that the early introduction of solid food was contributing to a displacement of breast milk and formula, which doctors were starting to recognize as more nutritious.
As of today, the American Academy of Pediatrics, U.S. National Institutes for Health, and World Health Organization all recommend waiting until a baby is at least 6 months old to introduce solids.
The impact of commercial baby food on American food culture has been enormous. Not only were babies fed solids earlier and earlier—displacing breast milk as the primary source of nutrition—they were exposed to textureless purées with refined sugar, salt, MSG, and other artificial flavors more than ever before, potentially impacting their flavor preferences for life.
Perhaps most poignant in the cultural shift of feeding babies, however, is the boomerang effect the industry has had on moms in the last 100 years. The very products designed to make feeding babies easier for moms laid the foundation for a cultural expectation that parents should make organic, unprocessed baby food at home. Not surprisingly, the industry has responded with lines of pricey organic pouches, featuring everything from organic beets with superfoods like chia seeds to wild-caught salmon purées. A close inspection of these modern products, however, shows that most still contain the traditional sweeteners of sweet potatoes, carrots, apples, and pears.
Before the invention of perfectly smooth baby food, babies were exposed to a wider variety of textures. Further, because straining baby food was so labor intensive, it's not hard to imagine that babies may have eaten finger foods earlier in their solid food journey than babies did in the 1950s.
In 2019, Solid Starts conducted an analysis of North American Google searches related to baby food. Interestingly, the results demonstrated that searches related to picky eating were among the most popular queries. While picky eating is nothing new, research shows that it has been on the rise for quite some time.
Cultural shifts in eating are rarely linear. No single baby food company can be responsible for the sheer impact that commercial baby food has had. One has to factor in the rise of advertising, the increase of marketing to kids, the boom of snack foods, as well as the extended period of time in which babies were spoon-fed purées. But once you put everything together, it's easy to see how picky eating has become the number one problem in feeding babies.
Numerous studies have shown that the more variety of tastes, textures, colors, and mouth feels a baby is exposed to, the more likely those children are to accept new foods later on. Further, research studies have shown that babies fed diets of bland, textureless foods are more likely to prefer these foods later on.
As the evidence builds for the benefits of introducing a variety of wholesome, real food to babies, feeding philosophies are shifting. Methods such as baby-led weaning (where purées and spoon-feeding are skipped in favor of finger foods) are quickly growing in popularity. For a detailed review of baby-led weaning, and why you might want to try it, hop over to our next section: What is Baby-Led Weaning?
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