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Store-Bought Baby Food Offers Little Benefit to Milk Diet

Bottles of Nestle baby food sit on display inside a store at the Nestle SA headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland. Photographer: Valentin Flauraud/Bloomberg
Bottles of Nestle baby food sit on display inside a store at the Nestle SA headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland. Photographer: Valentin Flauraud/Bloomberg

Commercial baby foods offer little nutritional benefit over breast milk and infants would get more from homemade purees than from a jar when transitioning to a solid food diet, a study found.

Researchers looked at more than 450 products for infants being weaned off breast milk made by Danone SA’s Cow & Gate, H.J. Heinz Co., Boots, Hipp Organic, Ella’s Kitchen and Organix Brands Ltd. Fifty grams of homemade baby food would probably have the same energy and protein as 100 grams of the commercial food, they wrote in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, which is published by the British Medical Association.

The main purpose of weaning food is to increase the energy children consume and provide richer sources of nutrients such as iron, the researchers said. Commercial foods with meat had the highest iron content though no higher than formula milk and not much higher than vegetarian-based commercial food, they said. Commercial rusks and biscuits had more energy and higher amounts of calcium and iron than homemade foods as well as more sugar, the study found.

“People buy processed food because of convenience, but people should understand what’s in it,” Charlotte Wright, a pediatrician who worked on the study, said in an interview.

Two-thirds of the commercial foods studied were classified as sweet and 44 percent were advertised for infants 4 months and older even though the recommendation from the World Health Organization, the U.K.’s National Health Service and the American Academy of Pediatrics is 6 months.

First Year

Health professionals should advise families to progress to homemade weaning foods prepared without salt and sugar, particularly later in the first year of life, the researchers said.

“Just as you wouldn’t live on McDonald’s every day, that’s how baby jars should be viewed,” said Wright, who is also a professor of community child health at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

Some parents want to wean their infants before six months and Organix makes clear which foods are suitable for that age, Anna Rosier, managing director at the Bournemouth, England-based company, said in an e-mailed statement.

“All of our foods are complementary to breastfeeding, and we adhere to the regulations for complementary foods for babies,” she said. “We do not make foods with the purpose to replace breast milk as the primary source of nutrition before 6 months.”

Nutritional Needs

Organix products aren’t fortified with vitamins or minerals because it isn’t permitted with organic food, she said.

The European Union and the American Academy of Pediatrics say complementary food can be added to a milk diet as early as four months if the child is developmentally ready, Meike Schmidt, a spokeswoman with Vevey, Switzerland-based Nestle SA, the world’s biggest food company, said in an e-mailed statement.

Nestle products for infants and young children are carefully prepared to ensure they provide the right balance of nutrients in appropriate amounts for infants and young children, they are safe and meet all regulatory requirements where they are sold, including labeling,” Schmidt said. “Levels of protein, carbohydrate including sugars, fat, vitamins and minerals in baby foods are strictly regulated by legislation which is based on advice from scientific experts.”

Danone doesn’t market complementary food for infants younger than six months in most countries where it operates, Charlotte Pasternak, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an e-mailed statement. The exception is Europe, where the European Food Safety Authority opinion says introducing complimentary food between four and six months is safe, she said.

Ella’s Kitchen supports breastfeeding for six months, “however, it may not always be possible or appropriate,” Emma Sykes, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an e-mailed statement. “As the study acknowledges, commercial weaning food is created to complement the nutrition gained from baby’s milk.”

Heinz products are prepared to meet babies’ nutritional needs with recipes that provide the right tastes and textures, the Pittsburgh-based company said in an e-mailed statement.

“Generations of parents have trusted Heinz baby foods as safe and nourishing,” Heinz said.

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