Inventing Baby Food by Amy Bentley

Inventing Baby Food by Amy BentleyBacon Phat
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Amy Bentley’s Inventing Baby Food chronicles the food industry’s creation and marketing of products specifically for babies with little regard for health or logic.

In this episode, we discuss:

Show notes


What is the history of baby food?

Much of Amy’s book is a discussion of the history of scientists and doctors trying to figure out when and how to introduce solid foods.


Baby food, as explained by Amy, was invented in the 20th century when the founder of Gerber realized she wanted to make and can strained vegetables and fruits for her infant daughter. Her husband already owned a canning company and decided to sell small cans of food to other parents. Other companies like Beech-Nut and Clapp’s followed. The food industry was integral in influencing mothers’ behavior with marketing strategies including, “spend less time in the kitchen and more time with baby”. The Gerber baby also influenced women because even though it wasn’t a real baby, people thought it was and based their feeding decisions on how much their baby looked like the Gerber baby. (This caused a problem in Guatemala, where Gerber was sued for seemingly marketing baby food to infants under 6 months old, which was against the law. Gerber challenged the suit and delayed the ruling enough that it was able to continue using the Gerber baby on foods in Guatemala.)

How and when to feed babies


Babies’ food preferences are dictated by their mothers’ diets in utero and in breastmilk. Food particles travel through the amniotic fluid to the baby and predispose a baby to certain tastes. Similarly, the richer the mother’s diet, the richer the breastmilk and the easier to acclimate a baby to new foods. Scientists argue that children need to be exposed to solid foods (mainly vegetables) sometimes up to 15 times before they like them. Perhaps parents’ diet has something to do with it… (Or maybe these are foods that don’t offer much in the 

way of nutrition anyway, and toddlers are right to disregard them.) Commercial baby foods help influence babies’ palates after infancy and childhood because they are devoid of spices and variety and contain added sugar. 


The book tackles the history of when to breastfeed and when to introduce solid foods and what kinds. Breast milk is an important food for babies because it contains oligosaccharides, which are long-chain sugar molecules specifically designed to feed b infantis bacteria, which should be the predominant bacteria in babies’ guts upon birth. Breast milk also provides babies with antibodies and bacteria that help build a strong immune system and diverse microbiota throughout the body. It is no surprise that our bacteria profiles largely mirror those of our mothers. Without breast milk, our microbiomes develop from the environment. (Our microbiome also develops during birth through the vaginal canal; breast milk then continues the colonization.) Breast milk is also nutritionally perfect for babies, providing them everything they need while they develop. Shockingly, babies need plenty of fat for healthy development. And not fat from industrially produced seed oils, but fat from breast milk, which is 50% saturated.

Breast feeding became gross

In the United States in the 20th century, women tended to stop breastfeeding early or not breastfeed at all according to socially accepted norms and attitudes. In the mid-20th century, women viewed breastfeeding as primitive and backwards, and doctors told mothers that formula was equal or superior to breast milk. Our mother told us that her mother’s doctor told her not to breastfeed asking, “Are you a cow?” Moreover, the breast was sexualized, argues Amy. She writes, “As breasts became more sexualized, they became less functional: more the purview of men as sexual objects and less the domain of infants and as a source of food. As this transformation continued, breast-feeding, especially in public, became less normal and more taboo, and by mid century most Americans attached a vague sense of disgust to the practice.”


Early substitutes to human breast milk seemed to include anything white. Originally baby formulas contained flour, water, and cows milk. Over time, formulas were just wheat and water and also soy-based. This tendency to create something that looks like milk but isn’t reminded us of milk produced in swill dairies in New York in the 1850s. Byproducts of vodka distilling were fed to cows, which produced a blue milk devoid of nutrients and dangerous to drink. Producers added chalk and other white thickeners to trick consumers into thinking the white liquid was milk. Eventually, pasteurization was developed, and supposedly, the government increased food regulation. However, industrially raised cows are still fed food waste and byproducts.


Solid (Franken)foods as early as possible!


Since women were turning away from breastfeeding, it was also in vogue to introduce solid foods as early as possible. It became a competition among mothers to introduce solid food earlier and earlier. In fact, it became common to give babies special silverware and bowls, giving rise to the phrase “born with a silver spoon in his mouth”. Rather than pre-chew babies’ foods to provide enzymes and aid digestion (a practice still employed around the world), mothers purchased bland, pureed fruits and vegetables and puffed rice cereal. 


The thing about commercial baby food was that it was essentially made up. It was not borne out of rigorous science. Rather, the food industry made products, which the scientific community then tested. There was no regard for sugar content, additives, or the nutrition appropriate for infants. During the clean food movement, Beech-Nut announced it would remove added sugars from its products and discontinue some of its baby food desserts (yes, that was a real thing). Other companies followed suit, but Gerber was much more hesitant. In fact, in response to the public’s outrage over the sugar content in Gerber’s products, the company responded by saying, “We never said they were particularly nutritious. We just said they tasted good.”

Baby food companies lie


Baby food companies also lied to consumers about the dangers of preparing baby food at home. As Amy writes, Beech-Nut sent a letter to more than 700,000 new parents warning them that feeding their baby homemade baby food could cause “methemoglobinemia, a rare form of anemia that could result from an infant’s ingestion of large amounts of nitrates found naturally in spinach, beets, and carrots”. Not only does this type of anemia not occur often, but it has never been attributed to homemade baby food. After being sued, Beech-Nut agreed to send a new letter to the parents saying that baby food cooked at home should be fine as long as mothers exercise extreme caution when making it. 


Eventually baby food wasn’t just for babies. Companies started releasing recipes that used their canned baby food like Plum Organics’ peach-glazed chicken. Apparently, this is still a thing as blogs and magazines continue to publish recipes using baby food online as if it is a novel and strange concept. And celebrities adopted the “baby food diet”, eating nothing but cans of baby food because they thought they were great for portion control and typically are under 100 calories. The irony of all this, of course, is that baby food is really just the same as regular processed food, just in a smaller package that costs more per ounce than its bigger counterpart. And, processed food companies coming up with recipes that make people think they have to use the packaged version of the necessary ingredients is also not new! This has been around as long as the food industry.


When the food industry tells you to use its products to save you time and money and “free yourself” from cooking all the time, it is not actually freeing you. It is just switching your servitude from the kitchen to the companies. They do not care about your health, and they do not care about your free time. They care about selling their products and making money. And they want to make a “heavy user” out of you. (And in this case, your baby.)


Academics decides how you should raise your baby

Similarly, when academics and industry tell you how to raise your baby and what the best practices are, who is to say they are any more right than any other era of thought regarding child rearing? Every parenting technique (co-sleeping, letting children cry it out, corporal punishment, etc.) is thought up by some human and prescribed to other humans. Amy writes about how wanting to be closer to your children was called “momism” as if wanting to be a good  mother is a derogatory term. It literally has its own Webster definition. And while excessive mothering might sound negative, the term is not borne of science but rather Italy in the 1950s during the Cold War and an increasing fear that boys were becoming too “sissy”. Rather than overload yourself with theories about how to raise children, we argue that parents should follow common sense and intuition.

George McGovern is NOT a good guy


What we’re not as excited about in this book is Amy’s discussion of Senator George McGovern’s role in the “clean food movement”. Amy makes it sound like the guy was a hero championing for the reduction of sugar and food additives, but McGovern was the leader behind the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This story, which is covered by countless books including Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes and The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz, reveals that McGovern’s chief concern was making dietary recommendations for all Americans regardless of their scientific validity. The result of the guidelines, whose basis was disputed by many in the scientific community, was that saturated fat, meat, and dietary cholesterol were wrongfully blamed for the rise in deaths attributed to coronary heart disease. Rather than celebrate McGovern as a crusader who took on the food industry, we get angry at his very mention because of what his actions did to the presence of meat and quality fats in the American diet.

Salt is GOOD for you


Amy presents salt as a problem for health. Salts, which we’ve mentioned before, are reactions of acids and bases or compounds composed of cations (positively charged particles) and anions (negatively charged particles). While there are literally thousands of salts, Amy discusses mostly sodium chloride, or table salt. Despite the negative connotation given to salt added to commercial baby food, sodium is not dangerous for health but rather necessary for it. As Dr. James DiNicolantonio writes in The Salt Fix: Why the Experts Got It All Wrong—and How Eating More Might Save Your Life, sodium is necessary for human health. It is involved in every muscle contraction, including those of neurons and the heart. Moreover, similar to the diet-heart hypothesis, the connection between dietary salt and serum salt concentration is not one to one. In fact, DiNicolantonio argues that more salt might help lower serum salt levels.

WIC is the WORST

Finally, we don’t love Amy’s treatment of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). While she talks about how the program has expanded to include foods from farmers’ markets (which is an awesome thing), she fails to mention how the program is funded by industry and provides parents with horrible choices for infant and child nutrition. The program has improved and expanded the options for things like peanut butter, but it includes an entire section for commercial cereals. When Julia was in graduate school, she studied the WIC program as it was in 2015. Friends who used WIC had to choose Jif peanut butter and low-fat, pasteurized commodity milk. Participants still have to choose pasteurized milk, but at least now it can be whole. And they can have natural peanut butter, but it can’t be organic. And states still have discretion over which brands to allow. 

Final thoughts



If you want to get really, really mad at the food industry (and you aren't already for some reason), then read (or listen) to this book ASAP.

Amy Bentley details countless examples of industry malpractice, including ignorance of science, carelessness, lack of compassion, outright lying, and incomprehensible cruelty. From the Gerber baby's made-up origins to telling new parents their baby will die if they eat home-cooked food, industry has been manipulating people for over a century.

If you have a baby, take this opportunity to feed her real food not manufactured with the goal of creating a lifelong user and generating profit. At the end of the day, the baby food industry cares about one thing: dolla signs.