Newswise — A recent report from a House Oversight subcommittee revealed that commercial baby foods are “tainted with significant levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury,” a finding that sparked concern for parents across the country.
The report noted that toxic heavy metals could impact a baby’s neurological development and long-term brain function, but a registered dietician from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) said the bottom line is that we don’t really know the impact toxic metals can have on child development.
“A lot of these metals are found in soil, like arsenic, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate baby food in terms of documenting the levels of the metals,” said Shreela Sharma, PhD, RD, professor with UTHealth School of Public Health. “So, we have gaps in knowledge on the impact of various levels of these toxic metals in food on human development and health outcomes. The fact that we don’t know doesn’t mean that the consumption of these foods can negatively impact health outcomes – there’s currently no scientific evidence to suggest that. The conclusion from the recent article is that we need more assessment and monitoring on what babies are consuming, especially since these foods have become a prominent source of nutrition for many.”
Making food at home removes many questions about the “unknown”
In the meantime, Sharma and nutritionists with UT Physicians say the easiest way to avoid some of the “unknowns” that come with packaged food is to prepare your own baby food at home.
“We know that it is always beneficial – for kids or adults – to eat primarily food that you or a family member has prepared so you know exactly what goes into it. This won’t put an end to concerns about metals that are found in soil until we have more data, but it does keep you from being exposed to the part of the manufacturing process that makes food shelf-stable,” Sharma said. “If I mash up a pear for my child, that’s much different than buying pear baby food, because the mashed pear wouldn’t be able to sit on the shelf at the grocery store for weeks.”
Know the history of convenience foods
Sharma said it’s important to understand the history of convenience foods and why they were developed.
“A lot of convenience foods were generated around World War II, when the U.S. Army was trying to create longer-lasting rations for soldiers, and it’s since evolved from there. They weren’t created to be staple foods that you consume at every meal every day. They were made for when you are in a bind or to supplement home prepared meals. Now those convenience foods are what some children are eating morning to night, and we don’t know yet what effect that will have on them, if any,” Sharma said.
Homemade baby food could reduce your grocery budget
In addition to knowing exactly what goes into food prepared at home, Sharma said making your own baby food can be more cost-effective.
“One jar of baby food costs about $1, but if you made mashed potatoes, your baby could have them without butter and spices and that probably only costs a few cents – and now your family can enjoy what you made too. Babies and children often want to eat what you are eating. What better way to establish those mealtime routines that are so important to dietary behavior than serving them similar foods as the rest of the family?”
Sharma said shopping seasonally can also help save money on the grocery bill, as well as building your child’s palate.
“Explaining seasonal foods to your kids can be a great way to teach them about the seasons and get them interested in what foods your family is eating and buying,” Sharma said.
Use what you have to start
Starting your baby off with mashed versions of common fruits and veggies, like avocados and bananas, can be an easy way to get them acquainted with food.
Similarly, Sharma said the entire family of squashes and potatoes, including sweet potatoes, are great and highly nutritious. She said they can be steamed or roasted, but roasting really brings out the sweetness, and then all you have to do is mash it for your little one.
“You don’t even have to blend these foods. There is a common misconception that an expensive blender or special baby food blending system is needed to prevent the baby from choking, but mashing with a fork or blending with whatever blender or food processor you already have works just fine. When my boys were young, I would just mash or blend fruits and vegetables, put the mixture into ice trays, and freeze it. Then as I needed, I would thaw the cubes.”
She noted that starting with mashed or pureed foods, like avocado, and then progressing to chunkier pieces, and then slices, helps babies adjust naturally to different textures.
Planning is key
Sharma noted that any type of homemade meal prep requires proper planning.
“Your nutrition cannot compete with convenience. Cooking at home is never going to be as fast as going through a drive-thru or picking up premade baby food at the store, but that’s not the point. Integrating your child’s healthy diet as part of your regular mealtime routine so that they learn healthy eating habits is the point,” Sharma said.
Sharma said she spends about an hour on the weekend planning her family’s meals.
“If we can find time to plan other things, this is certainly something that can also be done. As you’re planning dinner for yourself or your family, think through what components of your meals could be the baby food,” Sharma said.
Cooking at home also allows you to celebrate your culture.
“We cook a lot of Indian food at my house, and if I didn’t introduce that type of food, like lentils or spice, early on, I don’t know if they would like it as much as they do today. I would just give them some of the components of our meal with mild spice and then built upon that as they got older. Now they crave the Indian food I cook,” Sharma said.
Tips, tricks, and recipes for homemade baby food
As your baby advances past mashed fruits and veggies, the below are some helpful tips and tricks for making healthy and delicious food at home.
- Yogurt is a great binder, especially for blending fruits and berries. Coconut water can work well, too.
- Slightly overcooking foods like brown rice, lentils, and quinoa makes them soft and a great texture for babies. Brown rice can also be a great binder to blend with veggies.
- If shopping for the occasional convenience food, organic doesn’t always mean healthier. Make sure to read the ingredients and watch out for added sugar or added sodium.
- Homemade popsicles can be a fun way for children to enjoy fruits and veggies as a treat.
Below are two recipes for nutritious homemade baby food developed by Sharma.
Roasted Sweet Potato
1 sweet potato
2 tablespoons water or breast milk
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Wash the sweet potato thoroughly and cut it in half. Wrap it in foil and bake for 1 hour. Peel the potato and place in a food processor or blender with water or breast milk. Blend until tender and ready to serve.
*This can also be done with regular potatoes and acorn squash.
*As your child grows, instead of blending, mash with a fork for a chunky texture or cut into cubes.
2 large ripe peaches
1-2 tablespoons water or breast milk
Sprinkle of nutmeg (optional)
Peel the peaches, remove pits, and cut them in half. Place them in a vegetable steamer for about 6 minutes until tender. Blend in a food processor or blender with desired amount of water or breast milk until a smooth consistency is reached. Consider adding a sprinkle of nutmeg for added flavor.
*Potatoes and peaches could be blended together to introduce a new flavor.
To contact a registered dietician or nutritionist at UT Physicians, call 888-4UT-DOCS.
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