TV DINNERS FOR TOTS?

J and I have long been curious about why most baby formula manufacturers do not make their ingredient lists readily available on the internet for consumers to read. While at the grocery store the other evening, we got our answer. To be fair, the ingredients weren’t nearly as bad as I expected them to be, but I do have considerable difficulty accepting that ingredients such as corn maltodextrin, soy and fractionated oils could be appropriate first “foods” for a baby. One particular variety of baby formula had corn maltodextrin as the first listed ingredient, meaning that by volume, it is the most predominant ingredient in the product!

Just a brief note about maltodextrin: Maltodextrin, which can be made from corn (most commonly), wheat, rice or potato, actually refers to any one member of a family of polysaccharides (collectively known as maltodextrins), which, depending on its chain length, may be closer in composition to starch or to glucose. Maltodextrins are classified by their “dextrose equivalent” or “DE” (a measure of chain length, sweetness and solubility), on a scale from three to 20. Anything with a DE of greater than 20 is classified as glucose syrup. Thus, when maltodextrin is listed as an ingredient, we have no way of knowing where on the DE spectrum that particular maltodextrin falls; whether it is more starch-like in nature, or whether we are just a step away from consuming pure glucose.

The baby formula ingredients were disconcerting, but the ingredients in so-called “toddler foods” (actually designed to be fed to babies as young as nine months of age) were simply appalling. Packaged and processed baby foods are a booming business that has grown way beyond the Pablum and puréed produce of my childhood. It would appear that today’s parents are being not-so-subtly influenced to believe that babies and toddlers are not interested in nor capable of eating real food; rather, they must have baby-specific foods that have been “dumbed down” in taste, texture, size — and sadly, nutrition.

Which brings me to the title of this post: TV dinners for tots? Yes, they do exist. They may not be marketed as TV dinners, but as J remarked when he first saw the microwaveable toddler meals in plastic trays, “They’re like Hungry Man for babies!” And indeed, they are.

Nestlé-Gerber has developed a line of 10 ready-to-eat meals — designed for babies 12 months and up — in tastebud-numbing varieties like Macaroni & Cheese with Peas & Carrots, and featuring such delightful ingredients as bleached wheat flour, sugar, colour, dextrose, maltodextrin, modified cornstarch, beef/chicken flavour, caramel colour, partially hydrogenated soybean, oil, corn syrup, annatto (a food colouring linked to many food allergies), bread crumbs, butter flavour and autolyzed (processed) yeast extract.

And in case the above meals aren’t providing all of the nutrition you believe your baby needs (newsflash: they aren’t), Nestlé also offers a powdered Toddler Drink, a complementary supplement to their meals, designed to “help fill in any nutritional gaps or give your todder an extra wholesome boost!” Among the first several ingredients in this “wholesome” concoction, you will find (in the order listed on the package): sugar, corn maltodextrin, corn oil, canola oil, palm olein (fractionated palm oil) and… drumroll please… artificial flavour (“yummy vanilla”). To me, this sounds much closer to a McDonald’s milkshake than a nutritious drink for a baby.

As for snacks (since babies consuming these blood sugar spiking processed meals and drinks will invariably be ravenous between feedings), Nestlé offers a variety of infantilized adult foods, including their sugar-laden, fruit-flavoured Puffs, savoury Lil’ Crunchies (like baby Cheetos!), Cereal Twists (baby Nutri-Grain bars), and my personal favourite, gummy fruit-flavoured candies with the innocuous sounding name, Juice Treats, which are chock full of nutritious corn syrup, sugar, dextrose, cornstarch, hydrogenated coconut oil, carnuba wax, beeswax and colour. As a further insult, the Nutrition Facts panel on Juice Treats reveals that one tiny 28 gram package contains 24 grams of simple carbohydrates — the equivalent of feeding your baby five teaspoons of table sugar! Nobody in their right mind would deliberately shovel five teaspoons of white sugar into a baby’s mouth, but it is easy to see how an uninformed parent could be deceived into thinking Juice Treats (“made with real fruit juice!”) could be a nutritious snack.

I have difficulty understanding how it came to be that babies and toddlers somehow lost their ability to eat real foods — such as eggs, fish, meat, vegetables and fruits (supplemented, of course, by breast milk). At what point did we stop believing that Mother Nature could adequately provide for our babies’ nutritional needs and start believing that processed, fortified, packaged and commercialized fare could be more nutritionally complete?

Babies — who were once sheltered from this realm by virtue of being too young to succumb to media and peer influences — are a newly-discovered gold mine of a target market for food manufacturers, thanks to harried parents who are being deliberately mislead to believe that after three to six months of age, breast milk and real foods are nutritionally inadequate for babies’ needs. But get ’em hooked while they’re young, and they’ll be loyal consumers for life. It seems that the road to obesity, type II diabetes and heart disease now begins earlier than ever before…

And on a completely unrelated note, here is last week’s photo at 33 Weeks.

6 responses to “TV DINNERS FOR TOTS?

  1. “At what point did we stop believing that Mother Nature could adequately provide for our babies’ nutritional needs and start believing that processed, fortified, packaged and commercialized fare could be more nutritionally complete?”

    Of course, you already answered this, but – Clever marketing!! These companies HAD to trick parents into purchasing their overpriced baby foods/formulas. And even at one of my daughter’s well-child doctor’s appointments (she was a slow grower, though vigorous, playful, and VERY healthy) my Doctor asked how much she was eating. Well, the answer was that she was nursing on-demand, and she was eating table food on demand – but I didn’t know exactly how much. His comment was that I should start feeding her babyfood out of a jar so I would know actual quantities. I just didn’t see that as necessary. My child was eating to satiety, and happy and healthy and that’s all *I* needed to know!

    (Both of our babies’ “baby food” was nursing on demand until they self-weaned, and when they were about 6 months’ old they also got whatever we ate that we could mush up easily with a spoon….I always figure if I can mush it w/ a spoon, a baby can mush it w/ their gums. Of course, that means the parents have to have a healthy diet, as well – which many don’t.)

    This is a topic that’s baffled me – how can parents actually BUY this stuff? And even more puzzling – how can I (even though I know these products are crap….) feel GUILTY when I don’t buy them? The packages are so colorful, when you’ve got your child in the cart and walk down that aisle, they’ll reach, you’ll say “no” and the woman next to you will look at you like you’re a bad parent……Thanks for the post.

    • I wonder whether this (in my opinion, misguided) need to quantify children’s food intake is part of what teaches them later in life to ignore their instinctive hunger/satiety signals and just blindly finish everything on their plates. I can’t imagine that of any human being, a perfectly healthy baby would be incapable of appropriately responding to hunger and satiety.

      I know that we are going to be up against enormous pressure and judgement from others (thankfully not our families!), who may think us cruel or just plain strange for not allowing our little one to have “fun” baby/toddler foods and junk food, but the hope is that by introducing real foods right from the beginning and by modelling healthy eating habits ourselves, we will be able to instill a love of healthy foods that transcends many of the temptations he will experience later on.

  2. That stuff is gross plain and simple.

    We did baby led weaning. It was slow going. My only regret is that I became quite frustrated. Not because it bothered me that at one he was still mostly getting calories from breast milk, but that all of his friends were eating a lot of solids. Solids made up of Cheerios and baby puffs.

    At 20 months I now trust him and his hunger cues and palette to lead the way on his nutrition. Some days all he wants are bananas. Other days it’s sweet potatoes. He has been known to eat a big pile of ground beef. I’m not perfect with the packaged food: he does love a digestive biscuit when allowed. But we aim to have the majority of food offered be perishables: meat, veggies, fruit and dairy.

    • I can see how that would be frustrating, especially when new parents are in this constant unspoken competition to see whose child reaches various developmental milestones the earliest. I imagine that we will have to spend a lot of time explaining why our six to nine-month-old is still getting the majority of his nutrition from breast milk while his peers have been slurping back their watered-down purées and cereal-enhanced formulas since the tender age of three months.

      We have been researching baby-led weaning for several months, and I am absolutely convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that that is the safest, kindest and healthiest way for our baby to begin eating solid foods. Not only that, but it also seems a heck of a lot easier and more economical for us — no shopping for nor preparing baby-specific foods, and no playing “here comes the airplane” with spoonfuls of bland, unpalatable mush.

      It will be interesting to see whether by doing this, we manage to avoid going through the “beige foods” phase that most kids experience…

  3. Well said! Know that feeding your baby God’s perfect food for him and real foods (we pretty much wait to start solids until baby can feed small pieces of whatever–veggies, fruit, meat–to himself) will stir up a lot of mommy guilt in others and they will get defensive about their own choices. I’ve learned it’s more peaceable to not discuss it at all unless someone asks.

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