Monday, August 18, 2014

Pureed Foods for Baby?

Recently, some new friends who have a daughter slightly older than ours asked me if our 8-month old Nancy was eating jarred foods. I replied that she was indeed eating pureed foods, but I made them for her myself. They paused, not quite understanding, and rephrased, "But does she eat Gerber food?"

In the end, it became clear that they had some unopened jars of baby food that their daughter no longer wanted now that she had moved on to finger foods, and they wanted to know if we would take them. But there was a clear disconnect in their initial questions and my answers, as if they didn't have a category for the kind of food that Nancy was eating--pureed like Gerber, but not Gerber. Their questions made me think that, in their minds, baby pureed food = jarred food = Gerber.

My daughter Nancy eating homemade baby food
To me, as someone who is at home in the kitchen, it seemed so simple and intuitive that, rather than buying many small jars of milled up sweet potatoes that cost $1.50 each, I would buy one big sweet potato for $1.50, peel, chop, boil, food process, and freeze it in ice cube trays, yielding about ten times the amount of food for the same price, without all the packaging. Of course, even as I write that out, it's totally clear to me why many people would go with the former option. Yes, the DIY route may be cheaper, but it also requires a familiarity with simple kitchen tasks and access to equipment like a food processor and blender, freezer space, etc, in addition to being more time-consuming.

Ok, that may be the case for something that requires a little preparation, like sweet potatoes, but what about applesauce? One of the Gerber jars that we did end up taking off our friends' hands was of simple applesauce; ingredients: apples, water, ascorbic acid. When I looked at the large jar of "adult" applesauce in our pantry, I saw the same list of ingredients. Why not just pour some of that larger jar into a bowl to feed baby? Why buy the specially packaged and marketed "baby applesauce"? The same issue of access to equipment and kitchen knowledge no longer applies.

Encountering this difference in ways of feeding baby has made me think a lot about the creation of the category of "baby food." I'd run across this topic often when writing my dissertation about the history of the canning industry, as Gerber was founded in 1927 by Daniel Frank Gerber, owner of the Fremont Canning Company. But it was really having a baby myself that put the issue at the center of my awareness.

Thankfully, I don't have to go do the research on this myself, as one of my favorite historians, Amy Bentley, has already done so. Her new book Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet will be coming out from University of California Press next month. I can't wait.

http://www.ucpress.edu/img/covers/isbn13/9780520283459.jpg

If you also can't wait, you can read the first chapter, or check out a video of a talk she gave on this subject (in which, I discovered, she describes the very same phenomenon of marveling over "baby" applesauce vs "adult" applesauce that I describe above!).

You'll have to check out the whole talk for yourself, but one of her opening slides makes this historical question of "How did the category of 'baby food' come to be?" especially compelling:


How and why did experts go from suggesting parents give baby solid foods at 6-8 months to 4-6 weeks? How did this change take place in just 20-30 years? And what happened afterward, to pull the age back from 4-6 weeks to the present-day advice of 4-6 months?*

Who knew that feeding Nancy would bring up such fascinating historical questions?

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*Perhaps a topic for another post, but I was really interested to learn that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the leading experts on all things baby, is presently officially split in their stance on when to introduce solids. Their Nutrition Committee says 4 months, their Breastfeeding Committee says 6 months; the AAP thus agrees to disagree.