Puffs, pots, pouches and purees - Shop bought baby foods explored

Puffs, pots, pouches and purees….do you buy them for your baby? 

When you wander down the supermarket baby isle the vast array of commercial baby foods on offer is sometimes a little daunting. How do you know if they are nutritious? Are they healthy choices for your baby? Which ones should you choose? Are some brands better than others? Are pouches better than jars? It’s confusing, and so i’m going to give you the facts so you can make an informed choice about whats right for your baby and your family circumstances.

We know from the National Diet and Nutrition survey that 72% of 4 to 9 month old babies have shop-bought baby foods as part of their weaning diet. It’s not surprising that most parents opt for these at some point during their baby’s weaning journey, they’re ready made meals, they’re so convenient, you can simply pop a pouch in your changing bag and off you go!

However on closer inspection, I’ve found that many baby food purees are not as nutritious as home cooked versions and I urge parents to get to know the ingredients lists and nutritional information panel on the back of the packaging so you can see what they contain. 

Baby food ‘meals’ such as lamb tagine, beef bolognese or chicken casserole tend to be lower in both protein and iron than the equivalent dish you might make from a recipe at home. This is because meat, fish and poultry are the most expensive ingredients. By law, dishes must contain a minimum amount of the meat, fish or poultry in order to use its name in the dish’s title. So if the word ‘lamb’ is going to be used there needs to be a minimum amount of lamb in the dish. However, manufacturers tend to go for the legal minimum simply to keep costs down. Sometimes a dish is re-named to something that doesn’t contain the foods name like ‘country casserole’ or ‘hearty hunters stew’ which means that the meat, fish or poultry ingredient can legally be even lower!  These meals wont meet your baby’s iron requirements because the amount of meat, chicken or fish is too low. Iron is a critical nutrient needed in abundance during the second 6 months of your baby’s life.  You can read more about critical nutrients here.

Many of the pouches and jars are sold in darker coloured packaging and are marketed as being savoury dishes, however are actually very sweet because they’re based on apple or pear. They’re misleading for mums and dads and are actually more of a dessert. For example there is a dark green pouch on the supermarket shelves named ‘Broccoli, Pear and Peas’ but when you flip it over and look at the ingredients list, it’s actually 79% pear! Parents should considered this a sweet food or dessert, rather than a savoury meal. Babies need exposure to savoury bitter tasting vegetables on repeated occasions at the start of weaning to learn all about them. Babies are already proficient with sweet foods, as they’re born with an abundance of mature sweet taste buds, its an evolutionary thing to encourage them to seek out the breast for survival!

Some baby meals also have water added - it’s needed as part of the production process, but it does mean that the nutrient content becomes diluted and your baby has to eat a larger amount just to get her nutrients….its not yet proven but scientific researchers suspected this may impact on appetite regulation because it encourages your baby to eat a larger amount of food just to get the same nutrients. The danger of this is overeating which could lead to becoming overweight later during childhood.

Rusks, biscotti, baby rice cakes and baby biscuits often have sugar added or if not, are sweetened with apple juice - which in-fact is a free sugar. It’s not healthier just because it comes from an apple! For those of you in my Weaning & Baby Nutrition Masterclass you will know that I don’t have an issue with sugar. It’s a simple carbohydrate and if its an essential part of a recipe (like bread or cakes) then use it. The problem with sugar is when it eaten in excess. However in those first few months of weaning sweet foods really aren’t needed. Save these until your baby is established on 3 balanced meals and 3 snacks a day.

Unless cold pressed, all baby food pouches and jars are preserved by ultra heat treatment. Unfortunately this alters some of the nutrients, for example almost all vitamin C will be destroyed as it just can’t withstand heat. 

But most worryingly is often manufacturers add ingredients to baby foods that are not suitable for the stage that they are marketed for. For example some 4 month baby foods contain milk and wheat - both not recomended for babies till after 6 months of age!

They are also an expensive option in comparison th making your own foods at home. Did you know that a pouch of puréed carrot costs 10 times more than if you were making this yourself? And that includes the costs of gas, electricity etc!

From a texture point of view, shop bought baby foods tend to be uniform meaning that you could by the same pouch two months apart and it would be exactly the same. This is because these meals are mass produced in factories. This does have a major drawback, weaning is all about exposure. Allowing your baby to experience a wide variety of different textures helps her learn how to co-ordinate her oral muscles and essentially learn how to eat. She need to be challenged to get there.  With home made foods the texture will vary, depending on how long you’ve cooked the food for and how long and vigorously it was blended or mashed. For example if you whizz a puree for 7 seconds, it will have a coarser texture than if you whizz it for 10 seconds.

Some parents also allow their babies to suck directly from the pouches. I can understand why. It’s quick, easy, theres no mess and your baby can do this from the comfort of they pushchair while you go about your daily errands. However this is not recommended and fortunately most baby food manufacturers have noted this and added advice to their packaging.  As well as providing nutrition for healthy, growth and development, weaning is about teaching your baby the sensory properties of food. How does it look? What does it smell of? What noise does it make when I splat it on the wall? How does it feel in my hair? These are all important steps in the ‘learning to eat’ journey that your baby is on. Those who miss these developmental sensory steps can have behavioural eating problems such as fussy eating as toddlers and extending into childhood.

I do see a helpful role for finger shaped ‘puffs’ however. When babies are just starting out with finger foods and need to practice hand to eye co-ordination skills, these are ideal. At this very early stage in weaning most babies wont have advanced enough oral motor skills to be able to chew well. These ‘puffs’ are what we call ‘meltable solids’ and as such once your baby pops them in her mouth, they dissolve which means that she doesn’t need to have chewing skills in order to eat them. They are one of the safest finger foods in terms of risk of choking because of this. And from a nutrition point of view they are flavoured with herbs and spices rather than salt. They are very low in nutritional value though so always give these alongside a meal and never instead of.

So there you have it, my opinion on shop-bought baby foods. They’re handy if you are busy, short on time, don’t have a kitchen, have limited culinary skill or travelling abroad. But please take this information, mull it over and decide what to do based on whats best for your family and personal circumstances. 

They were ideal for one of my clients who weaned her first baby whilst undergoing chemotherapy!