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Baby Food (R)evolution

February 12, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - Where did baby food come from and where has it been?

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.

Article Photos

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 9 and 12 months. The age today is between 4 and 6 months. In the 1950s and '60s, it was 4 to 6 weeks after birth, so it's changed dramatically between the 18th century, mid-20th century and today.

AP: Where do you stand on the use of commercial baby food?

Bentley: I'm not against commercial baby food. 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: 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 flavors. 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.

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, flavors, 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 flavors, by having the pouch.

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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