Assessing Baby's First Foods : Commercial food for infants is convenient. But is it really good for the baby?

Usually we encounter Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, under the glare of TV camera lights, blasting yet another food that Americans have come to love--maybe movie house popcorn or deli sandwiches or Mexican food--for being too fatty.

On this weekday, Jacobson is home, taking care of his 3-year-old daughter, Sonya, and talking to a reporter on the telephone. He is, as always, ready to voice a strong opinion and unafraid to name names. Today, appropriately enough, his target is baby food.

"There were shocking adulterations of baby food by Gerber and Heinz," Jacobson says. "Just by looking at the labels, it was clear that this was the first junk food kids were going to eat."

In April, CSPI, the Washington-based consumer groups he heads, released a study on baby food that found poor nutritional values in many of the prepared products from major companies.

"These are companies that pretend they're marketing the highest quality products," Jacobson says, "and by reading the advertisements, you would think it was delivered straight from God to the bottles. But some of the foods are 50% water and starch."

"What's starch, daddy?" Sonya asks in the background.

Starch is a standard ingredient companies have long used to give baby food its consistency. But things are changing in the baby food world. As traditional jarred baby food comes under increasing scrutiny, new companies are coming on the market with certified organic and frozen baby food, and older companies are changing their recipes. Beech-Nut, for instance, prides itself on not using starch or any other additives. So, Jacobson points out, while Gerber's popular banana and tapioca is only "about 50% bananas with water and starch," Beech-Nut's is 100% banana.

Gerber, however, staunchly defends its use of starch and sugar.

"We look at the total diet for an infant, and in that context, both sugar and starch have a place," says Barbara Ivens, a nutritionist and registered dietitian with Gerber. "Babies are growing so rapidly that in their first years they do need sugar. And starch is a carbohydrate and a source of calories."

Jacobson does not agree.

"If you had 100% bananas, kids would get sugar, calories and vitamins from bananas," he says. "With starch and water, you get plain starch--no vitamins and no minerals. It's not food, it's a fraud."

Not so, says Sylvia Simonian, a clinical dietitian for Cedars Sinai Medical Center who works in pediatric nutrition. "Nutritionally, all baby foods are pretty similar," she says. "In the last several years, most companies have eliminated salt and sugar, so it doesn't make much difference [what you choose], as long as you offer your child a variety of foods and as long as the child is growing appropriately."

As far as Ivens is concerned, Gerber makes the very best food available, taking into account taste, nutrition, safety and variety. "We want to make sure babies like our foods," she says, "and they do."

Ivens has a point. Gerber has most of the market in this country, including Los Angeles, where it controls a whopping 71% of the market, according to Information Resources Inc. scanner data from August 1995. Beech-Nut follows with 24% and Earth's Best, the only certified organic baby food on the market, gets a mere 3 1/2%, even though it is the only baby food available in many health food stores.

Part of Beech-Nut and Gerber's advantage is price. A 4-ounce jar of Earth's Best organic carrots has a suggested retail price of 59 to 61 cents. Beech-Nut costs 40 to 43 cents; Gerber costs 38 to 42 cents.

So is all the talk about wholesome baby foods just part of a fad to give upscale parents a reason to shell out more money for the little jars, or is it part of a real trend? It's not as if dozens of alternative baby food companies are popping up and doing well. In fact, two small and highly praised companies--Mother Knows Best frozen baby food and Nature Babies perishable organic baby food--went out of business this year.

"We were just plain undercapitalized and we couldn't hang on long enough to become profitable," says Barbara Musser Weck, founder and former president of Nature Babies, which went under this summer, precisely when sales were climbing after little more than a year in the market.

On paper, Nature Babies was fantastic--fresh, perishable food made from organic produce. With catchy flavors like Go Go Mango and Carrot Fandango, it was the closest thing to fresh food. But its quest for flavor was its commercial undoing. Stuck in the refrigerated area of supermarkets, near yogurts and milk, Nature Babies languished as parents walked right past it to the baby food section.

"We found that people didn't think to look in the refrigerator, and there was no one in the stores carrying the flag for the product," says Musser Weck, who, despite the failed experiment, still thinks her baby food had a place in the marketplace.

"Had we had funding to go for another two years, we would have made it," she says. "Our clients were people who want the best for their babies, and once we could get them to taste the food, they loved it."

Musser Weck found out that marketing baby food is remarkably difficult. It's not just a question of developing a fine product but of angling for a visible location in supermarkets--where established brands have all the clout--and of changing consumer's habits. The same two or three brands of baby food have been dominant for seven decades.

"The competition is pretty high stakes and it's a very expensive business to get into," says Jay Shoemaker, president and CEO of Earth's Best, an organic baby food maker whose sales have doubled every two years. Even so, he says, "in seven or eight years we've invested tens of millions of dollars to get us where we are. We turned profitable a year and a half ago, and we're barely profitable."

In the L.A. area, Earth's Best is sold in major supermarkets, and it's the only baby food sold in stores like Mrs. Gooch's, because of its claim to be the only organic baby food in the market. Recent studies indicating that many baby foods have traces of pesticides in them have also bolstered Earth's Best sales, even though it hasn't been determined whether these tiny amounts can actually harm babies.

"My feeling is that conventional brands [of baby food] are OK," says Shoemaker, "but I think Earth's Best is more than OK. I do feel the day will come when all baby food is organic. When we introduced the idea of no added salt, sugar or fillers, that was unusual, and now I think all the conventional brands are adopting the same approach."

Industry giant Beech-Nut, in fact, claims it was the first baby food company to remove sugar and salt from its products--desserts excepted--in the mid-'70s. Starches, according to company representatives, were eliminated in 1985, the same year Earth's Best was created.

"We asked consumers what they wanted in baby foods, and they did not want added sugars or starch thickeners," says Susan Widham, vice president of marketing for Beech-Nut.

That approach has given good results in places like Los Angeles, where, according to Widham, Beech-Nut's share of the market rose from 16% in 1993 to 24% this year. Beech-Nut sales have also gone up, according to Widham, since the Center for Science in the Public Interest praised its foods.

But Beech-Nut, unlike Earth's Best, is simply not interested in marketing organic foods, mainly because there isn't enough money to be made. In fact, the company introduced an organic brand several years ago called Special Harvest but, says Widham, the demand was not high enough to warrant staying in that business.

"There is a place in the U.S. for an organic baby food product," says Richard Theuer, vice president of research and development for Beech-Nut. "But for a company our size, it wasn't profitable."

Theuer, who used to to be a member of the National Organic Standards Board, also argues that Beech-Nut products are as safe as organic products anyway. And they're cheaper.

Growing Healthy, one of the most innovative and probably the best-tasting baby food on the market, does not use organic produce either. Instead, it sells frozen baby food in microwaveable trays.

Growing Healthy's fresh ingredients are gently simmered (as opposed to the high-temperature cooking required for foods packed in jars), then immediately frozen to preserve taste, color and, say the manufacturers, nutrition.

"It's no different than if you boiled carrots, mashed them up and put them in the freezer," says Growing Healthy CEO Bill Bastien.

Indeed, the Center for Science in the Public Interest ranks Growing Healthy at the top of all the foods it tested for nutrition. And, says CSPI director Jacobson, "it actually tasted like real food, which is remarkable."

That was precisely the intent of Julia Knight when she founded the company in 1989.

"What I always found incredibly pathetic is that [as parents], we would never eat the food we give to our babies," says Knight. "I've done thousands and thousands of tests, and I always have difficulty convincing others to eat baby food.

"It appalls me that parents aren't more conscientious about their babies' food. Eating is something a baby does three, four, five times a day, and yet what you would give them is so disgusting you wouldn't eat it yourself," she says.

Persuading parents to try her product was one of the big hurdles Knight had to overcome. Other obstacles--that Growing Healthy is more expensive than any other baby food, has to be microwaved and is in the frozen food department, far away from the baby food--have contributed to the slower-than-expected growth of the company.

And the fact remains that babies' taste buds are different from their parents', and foods that taste insipid to an adult might be too highlt flavored for a baby. Still, says Bill Bastien, who replaces Knight as CEO of the company, when she resigned earlier this year, babies love the "sweet" taste of unprocessed Growing Healthy food, though he admitts that no research has been done on babies' food preferences.

Without going into detail, Bastien said Growing Healthy continues "to grow and to progress." Published reports, however, indicate that the company was never made a profit.

The big problem, say Knight and Jacobson, is re-educating parents and having them look for the healthiest and most nutritious food for their babies.

There is always the option of preparing your own baby food, thus controlling exactly what you feed your baby, but even that option is something the experts disagree on.

Cedars-Sinai nutritionist Simonian, for example, says there is no real advantage to cooking your baby's food from scratch.

"It's OK, if you're careful in handling food and storing it," she says. "But the nutritional value is virtually the same whether you buy a fresh carrot and mash it or whether you buy carrots in a jar."

Ultimately, parents will decide what to feed their babies according to their own priorities and standards. People like Knight, for example, argue that by feeding their babies fresher food they have instilled in them healthy eating habit

But the best advice, according to health experts seems to be the following: Check labeling on baby food carefully so you know exactly what you're feeding your baby. Check with your pediatrician on your individual baby's nutritional needs. And keeping these two parameters in mind, let your baby decide which food he or she likes best.

PUREED CARROTS

Any vegetable can be bought fresh, then cooked and mashed at home for the freshest taste. Broccoli, however, is not recommended for a baby's first months because it can cause gas. To avoid runny vegetables, mix them with a grain or cereal. In this recipe, the carrots are mashed with cooked barley, but you may substitute cooked brown rice or mashed potato.

2 to 3 fresh carrots

1/3 cup cooked barley

1 to 2 cloves garlic, optional

Cook barley in pot of boiling water until it is soft enough to bite into, about 45 minutes. If desired, add garlic to boiling water.

When barley is almost cooked, add carrots to boiling water and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Drain carrots and barley in colander.

Put barley and carrots in blender or food processor and puree until smooth. If puree is too thick, add little water to thin.

Makes about 1/2 cup.

Each 1 tablespoon serving contains about:

16 calories; 6 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 0 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 0 grams protein; 0.20 gram fiber.

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Cube Your Own Food for Babies

No matter what the experts say, many parents won't give their babies prepared food. The problem with making your own baby food, however, is that you can go to a lot of trouble to make a delicious meal only to be faced with an ungrateful, stubborn infant who would rather dismantle the CD collection than savor your fine cuisine. This is why many moms and dads have discovered the joys of the ice cube tray. You make up a batch of pureed carrots, then put it in the slots of an ice tray and freeze the whole thing. When mealtime arrives, you remove one cube and heat it over the stove or in a microwave. If your baby eats, terrific. If not, at least you've got more to try with later. You won't have cooked in vain.

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