Shop bought baby jars, pouches, puree's, puffs and rice cakes

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Do you buy commercial baby food 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? Is baby jar food good or bad? Are they healthy choices for your baby? Which ones should you choose? Are some brands better than others? Are baby pouches better than baby food jars? Are they all organic and does it even matter?

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.

How popular are shop bought baby foods?

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!

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Are they nutritious?

I’ve found that many baby food purees are not as nutritious as home cooked versions and I urge you 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 it’s 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.

Misleading packaging

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 fruit like 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!

Babies need exposure to savoury bitter tasting vegetables on repeated occasions at the start of weaning to learn all about them. They are already proficient with sweet foods, as they’re born with an abundance of mature sweet taste buds, it’s an evolutionary thing which encourages them to seek out milk at birth for survival!

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Nutrition dilution

Some baby meals also have water added - it’s needed as part of the production process, but it does mean that the nutrition becomes diluted and your baby has to eat a larger portion just to get her nutrients….it’s 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.

What about snacks like rusks, baby rice cakes and baby biscuits?

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! Those of you on my Baby Nutrition & Weaning digital course 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 around 10-12 months.

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Preserving food effects nutrition too

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. 

Unsuitable foods added to baby foods

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 recommended for babies till after 6 months of age!

What about baby cereal and baby porridge?

These are often very refined and have been processed to make them quite smooth. Often sweetened once again with fruit. The organic versions wont have any vitamins and minerals added either. To be quite honest? Theres nothing wrong with normal porridge oats or even Ready Brek or Weetabix. Many breakfast cereals are fortified with iron, B vitamins and even vitamin D which are so important to have during weaning.

How do they compare in terms of price?

They are also an expensive option in comparison to 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!

Will they help my baby progress through the stages of weaning?

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 is 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 solid food 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 in a blender for 7 seconds, it will have a coarser texture than if you whizz it for 10 seconds. This really does help your little one learn how to eat and progress through weaning.

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Is sucking from the pouch ok?

Some parents also allow their babies to suck directly from the pouches. I can understand why. In terms of feeding your baby it’s quick, easy, convenient, theres no mess, no spoon required and your baby can do this from their pushchair.

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 eating problems such as fussy eating as toddlers and extending into childhood.

What about savoury puffs?

There is a helpful role for finger shaped ‘puffs’. 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 oral motor skills to be able to chew well. These ‘puffs’ are what we call ‘meltable solids’ and 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.

From a nutrition point of view they are flavoured with herbs and spices rather than salt. However they are very low in nutritional value so always give these alongside a meal and never instead of.

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So what do I prefer?

My preferred baby foods are homemade baby food. You can get some amazing baby food recipes online these days and I can highly recommend my colleague Annabel Karmel whose recipes are nutritionally balanced.

Making your own baby food doesn’t have to be a chore, if you are cooking dinner for yourself just put a couple of veggies to one side before you add any salt, then puree up for your little one. If your a little further ahead on your baby's weaning journey and your baby is eating most solid foods, theres no reason why he cant have a small portion of what your having if you’ve planned ahead. In fact adapting your recipes to make them lower in salt is better for the whole families health.

Is it ok to use them occasionally?

Absolutely! They’re handy if you are busy, short on time, don’t have a kitchen, have limited cookery skills or travelling abroad. 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!

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist