Baby Food for Thought

Like pureed pumpkin splattered across the kitchen floor, the topic of introducing solids is a messy matter. With so much conflicting information out there, many parents feel confused.
KATE BARBER talks with family wellbeing and nutrition expert, DR JULIE BHOSALE, about the conflict, controversy and confusion around infant feeding, as well as the science behind what babies need.

A mum of two little boys, Arjun (4) and Sahan (2), Julie is passionate about sharing her insights and discoveries, as well as her ideas for ‘keeping baby feeding simple and practical’.

As she explains in her latest book, The Nourished Baby, ‘[t]he importance of establishing healthy habits in the first 12 months after [babies] come into this world cannot be stressed enough.

‘What we feed our babies in the first year of their life fuels their growth and impacts on their health across their lifetime. This includes how their brain develops, their immunity, and the pathways by which food is processed and used, from their taste for certain foods, the bacteria in their gut, and their ability to burn and use fat, carbohydrates and sugar as energy.’

What do our babies really need?
Julie explains that there are ‘three core foods’ that babies need: ‘vegetables and wholefoods that are rich in iron and dietary fat.’

Not only do these foods ‘provide the essential nutrients required for optimal growth and development in the first year of a baby’s life…, they support a healthy gut, keeping our babies’ immune systems fighting strong and that delicate balance of bacteria happy.’

Julie acknowledges that we don’t necessarily think about vegetables as carbohydrates. ‘However, for babies, glorious vegetables that have been barely touched by a human hand, let alone a processing machine, provide a nice, long, slow release of energy which their gut is ready for.’

From 6-12 months, there is a ‘golden window’ – in which babies will be open to trying anything. But, they will also quickly form food preferences. ‘Yes, your seven-month-old will quickly come to prefer sweeter foods’, says Julie. And, research shows that, by the age of three, children’s food preferences will be established. But, for those with fussy preschoolers, despair not. ‘It is harder to reintroduce these foods later on, but it is not too late.’

The key point: it is important to instil a preference for vegetables right from the start to help ‘ensure a high intake of these nutritional powerhouses through the toddler years, school years and beyond.’ As Julie says, ‘vegetables need to be introduced first, and they need to be introduced frequently with a lot of variety.’

Babies also need iron. More iron than three-year-olds, even. This is all down to ‘the huge growth babies experience in the first year’.

The final item in the all-important trio is fat – which is ‘crucial for optimal brain development, strong immune systems, and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins’, explains Julie. ‘Babies use fat (not carbohydrate) as their primary fuel source’ – and it is imperative that this continues when solid food is introduced. ‘Remember, we are establishing their metabolic pathways and preferences in that first year of life.’

How does bought baby food stack up?
Questioning those persuasive messages that pre-packed baby food is as nutritious as, even nutritionally superior to, fresh produce prepared at home, Julie conducted her own investigation, analysing all the commercial baby food available in two Auckland supermarkets, and comparing these to what was available in Cairns, Australia and the UK.

As detailed in The Nourished Baby, some of the findings are alarming. For instance, ‘15 per cent or more of all baby-food products were desserts, most of which had added sugar’.

Babies get natural sugar from glucose (vegetables), lactose (in breastmilk and dairy products) and fructose (fruit), explains Julie. They ‘absolutely do not require any other form of sugar, especially added or refined sugar. And, of course, if they get used to eating high amounts of natural sugar, spinach, kale and carrots are going to be less appealing.’

Julie is an advocate of making your own baby food. But, she is also realistic about the challenges parents contend with. ‘If having a couple of solid feeds a week using some pre-made baby food saves your sanity, or gets you through some rough days and enables you to keep making your own other meals, then it is worth it.’