Cultural historian Amy Bentley, mom of three teenagers and an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, answers that question and more in a sweeping new book tracing how Americans feed their infants.
Her "Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health and the Industrialization of the American Diet," was published in September by the University of California Press.
A conversation with Amy Bentley:
AP: What did families do before commercial baby food came along?
Bentley: Before the 20th century, the age at which one fed an infant solid food was much later — somewhere between nine and 12 months. The age today is between four and six months. In the 1950s and '60s, it was four to six weeks after birth, so it's changed dramatically between the 18th century, mid-20th century and today.
It was thought that you shouldn't feed infants fruits and vegetables until after the age of 2. There was a lot of distrust over fruits and vegetables. It harkens back to medieval and earlier theories of the body.
A lot of them were wet and watery, which were negative qualities. Plus some vegetables have laxative effects and there was such a worry about dysentery, cholera, other types of intestinal infections that really raised infant mortality rates, especially in the summer. People didn't really know what was causing it. Was it something inside the fruits and vegetables? Germs weren't understood.
It was also thought that fruits and vegetables didn't really have food value. It was only with the discovery of vitamins in the early 20th century that it was really understood they had value.
AP: Where do you stand on the use of commercial baby food?
Bentley: I'm not against commercial baby food. I think the book is a story of the industrialization of food in the United States and baby food is the case study. As always there's trade-offs. The industrialization of food helps ensure a supply. It creates a low cost supply of food so that more people can have more access to food, certainly compared to 300 years ago. Sometimes that food is not made very well and that affects health and nutrition, but canned food provides a lot of convenience.
And that's part of the story of baby food. It provides a convenience for American mothers. It gives them greater mobility. It allows women to go to work.
AP: How did commercial baby food impact the palates of generations raised on it?
Bentley: At the mid-20th century it was made the way all other canned foods were made, with added sugar, salt, preservatives, things that changed the flavour and the vitamin content. That was what it meant to be a good mother, to feed your baby primarily formula and then commercial baby food pretty early.
And what we're finding now through a lot of research is that babies learn through taste, and they learn from the get-go. Amniotic fluid is flavoured. Breast milk is flavoured. And so infants are emerging already experiencing tastes and flavours.
If that exploration and that education through tastes and flavours is muted or limited by monochromatic fluids or bland baby food that has high sugar or salt content, it limits the palate development. It limits the education of a child.
Humans are hardwired to crave sugar, salt and fat. That's evolutionarily one of the ways that we've survived. What industrial food at mid-century did was feed into those desires and led to further acclimation of those flavours. That is a negative.
AP: How important was the rise of the "mother-consumer" in the way babies are fed?
Bentley: It's an idea that really comes about in the early 20th century as you get the rise of mass production of goods, advertising, marketing, just a mass proliferation of consumer goods available that weren't before, so a mother's job of nurturer gets inextricably intertwined with a consumer. Part of a woman's job, a mother's job, was to purchase products for her family, for her infant.
It's really hard to disconnect the two. It was hard back then and it's still hard now. This is not unique to women but women by and large do the purchasing of products for families.
AP: What is the state of the commercial baby food industry today?
Bentley: It's still a very viable market but it's declined in percentage points in the last few years. There's been a really interesting surge of small boutique baby food companies, primarily organics, developing new foods, flavours, very much influenced by local food movements.
The pouch is a very important part of that. The commercial baby food market has scrambled to maintain their market share by introducing organics, new flavours, by having the pouch.
It's still a huge business and I don't think it's going to go away as long as women want to do other things, and work. The rise of making one's own baby food is gaining strength. More women are making their own baby food but probably the numbers who only exclusively make their own baby food are smaller.
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