Babies transition from milk to solids in a variety of ways, which usually depend on a number of factors. The society in which the child is being raised, the cultural influences of the extended family, the current weaning advice from child care and medical professionals and the experience and resources of the family rearing the child will all help to shape how a little one is weaned.
Through most of history, baby food has simply been the same foods as the adults, but mashed up and maybe with little-added breast milk or water. In many areas of the world, this is still the case and the concept of “baby food” is an alien one.
In cultures where commercially available baby food is the norm, we have become so used to seeing it on the store shelves that it can be difficult to imagine any other way of feeding our babies. However, this is a relatively new development as it was only 150 years ago that the first infant formula was developed and the first baby foods made for sale to the public hit the shelves.
How much has baby food changed in the last century and a half? Read on to find out.
20 The First Formula
In 1869, the snappily named Baron Justus Freiherr von Liebig had already revolutionized chemistry and organic chemistry by realizing the way in which our bodies use foods since the food themselves are all a matter of organic chemistry.
He went on to consider the question that if foods were made up of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, could these nutrients be combined into a replica of mother's milk? After a lot of experimentation, the Baron introduced Liebig's Soluble Food for Babies to the European market.
Liebig's powder was mixed with diluted milk and was promoted as virtually identical to mothers milk.
19 Next Is Nestle
In the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Andrew F. Smith tells us:
"In 1867, the Swiss merchant Henri Nestle invented the first artificial infant food, and in 1873, 500,000 boxes of Nestle's Milk Food were sold in the United States as well as in Europe, Argentina, and the Dutch East Indies.
By the late 1880s, several brands of mass-produced foods, mostly grain mixtures to be mixed with milk or water, were on the market. These included Liebig's Food, Carnick's Soluble Food, Eskay's Albumenized Food, Imperial Granum, Wagner's Infant Food and Mellin's Food. Mellin's was perhaps the most widely used."
18 "Science Conquers All Difficulties"
This description of Mellin's baby food, which was recommended for children started as of one month old, appeared in the Boston Daily Globe in 1881:
"Mellin's food, requires neither boiling nor straining, that having already been done, but is almost instantly prepared for use by dissolving a certain quantity in hot water and then adding cold milk. Analysis of the food after mixing shows it to contain a large proportion of grape sugar, which enters so largely into the composition of mother's milk, together with a large amount of protein and soluble phosphates, indicating flesh and bone forming nutrients of the highest type...
Thus science finally conquered all difficulties, and produced a food that all mothers will hail with delight."
17 The First "Easy" Food To Mix
It may not have been the first food designed and sold specifically for babies, but Pablum was the first baby food to come pre-cooked and thoroughly dried. Easy prep made Pablum popular at a time when infant malnutrition was still a significant problem.
Developed by three Canadian pediatricians and a nutrition laboratory technician working at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the cereal was a significant step forward in nutrition because by eating it, children were assured sufficient vitamin D in their diet. The team was rounded out by a chemist from "Mead Johnson" who went on to manufacture the final product.
16 Mrs. Gerber Strains Some Peas
The Gerber website tells us how the favorite baby food of US parents came into being:
“In the summer of 1927, Dorothy Gerber started straining solid foods for her 7-month-old daughter Sally. After repeating this process many times, Mrs. Gerber suggested her husband try it.
She watched Dan make several attempts, and then he pointed out that the work of straining fruits and vegetables could be easily done at their canning business, based in Fremont, Michigan. Workers in the plant began requesting samples for their own babies, and the legacy of GERBER baby foods began.”
15 The Gerber Baby Is Born
In 1928, Gerber launched their “Gerber Baby” contest and the winner was Dorothy Hope Smith, who had sketched an image of her neighbor's four-month-old daughter Ann Turner.
The now famous image was used on some of the packaging and in the Gerber magazine ads in publications such as Good Housekeeping, The Ladies' Home Journal, the Journal of the American Dietetics Association, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The baby was so popular that Gerber adopted the sketch as their official trademark in 1931. The next milestone was the introduction of the first Gerber first baby cereal in 1931.
14 Next Came The Jar
Amy Bentley, author of Inventing Baby Food and an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University says of the first jars of baby food:
"The products were portable and convenient. They were advertised as safe, modern and better than you could prepare at home. They were seen as a product of convenience for women. Women could put them in their bags, remove themselves from the kitchen and travel around. It eventually made it easier for them to go outside and perform paid labor because they had this portable baby food."
13 Wartime Baby Milk
During World War II in the UK, the government created the "National Dried Milk Scheme, which was announced in 1940.
It was full-cream milk that was roller-dried to a powder and fortified with vitamin D. It was intended for feeding to children at a time of milk rationing. It was also convenient for mothers, freeing them up from breastfeeding at a time when women had to go man the factories for the war effort. At first, it was available only to children under one year of age, then later, it also became available to those under two.
12 1950's: More And More Choice
In the late 19th century a baby wasn’t given their first solid foods until around their first birthday. Until that point, the child would be breastfed or, towards the end of the century, formula fed if there was no other option.
Solid foods were just not considered necessary, and the standard advice and practices were to introduce meat as a first food and fruit and vegetables were not presented until around the age of two.
Once we hit the mid-20th century, the standards changed and moms were encouraged to begin weaning at an earlier age and to use plenty of cereals, fruits, and vegetables.
11 How Early Can You Go Solid?
By the 1950s and '60s, it was recommended that you introduce solids to your baby at four to six weeks of age, with some doctors promoting the introduction of solids a mere 24 hours after birth.
This was a time when if something was promoted by science and doctors, then it must be right. Artificial formulas were “scientifically created” and therefore considered superior to breastmilk, so the majority of babies were formula-fed. Moving them on to commercial baby cereals was a natural next step.
As you can see from the ingredients above, salt, sugar, and other unnecessary ingredients were used as a matter of routine.
10 Jet Cooked For Baby
At this stage, there were no regulations about what went into the baby foods or any rules to say what you could or could not put on the label. It is, however, interesting to notice that the packaging in the 1950’s-1970’s is not covered with vague claims such as “natural,” “wholesome,” or “farm fresh.”
The only dubious thing found on these cereals is “Jet-Cooked” which was included to give the impression that it had a super fancy high-tech production process. At the time, the more something was processed, the more science had been thrown at it, and therefore the better it was.
9 Exactly What It Says, Kind Of
One of the things you will notice about the label on this jar is that there is no age limit or recommendation. These were not introduced until the 1990’s when medical advice had begun to turn away from the “earlier is better” attitude and become attuned with how babies had been successfully fed and weaned for thousands of years.
The side of the label you cannot see tells you that the jar is packed with carrots, water, and an array of salts, sugars, and other additives because this was still a period where artificial equaled better.
8 Not Just Peachy
The manufacturing processes used to produce commercial baby foods lent themselves more towards the pureeing of fruits. As they were already high in water content, you could add plenty of water to bulk them out, easily mash them up and pour them into a jar.
This led to a shift away from meat as a first food and opened up the world of baby food to carrots, peaches, pears and other easily squashed foods. This, in turn, led to increasing levels of sugars in a babies diet from an early age, encouraging a sweet tooth and all of the dental and health problems that come with it.
7 Yum -- Not!
It is somehow unsurprising that moms --because they were pretty much the only ones to be buying and using baby food at this stage-- were happy to feed their children fruit and vegetables if this offering from Libby's’s is anything to go by.
Now, admittedly, at the time of its production, Libby’s strained and homogenized Liver Soup was something you would want to buy and give to your baby but it is little wonder this particular flavor is no longer on the store shelves.
Strangely enough, it is not so much the liver element, but the fact it has been made into soup and then canned that puts me off.
6 Fill It Up With Specially Processed Juice
The back of the Bib orange juice says everything you need to know about how baby food, the mothers who were buying it, and child care, in general, were perceived. The can proclaimed that it was “Scientifically Controlled Orange Juice For Babies.” The label went on to say:
“The first MEDICALLY ACCEPTED BABY JUICE for pediatric feeding” and yes, the underlining and the all-caps looked just like that. It went on to say:
“The first orange juice for babies medically proven HYPOALLERGENIC (less allergy)”
“READY TO USE! OPEN, POUR and FEED. Pasteurized, specially strained for bottle feeding. Minimum citrus oil, uniform sweetness.”
5 At Least The Last One Had Oranges In It
We are beginning to move away from baby cereals as a first food but at least today's cereals are a pure dry product, usually made from the pure base that is then mixed with milk.
In years past, you could buy such dubious offerings as these from Heinz, which were promoted with the fact that you only had to add water. Yeah! Boil some water and pour it on top of this processed powder that also contains dried bananas and apple juice.
Just what you want to be giving to your precious little bundle eh?
4 Questionable Tastes
Before we were encouraged to buy commercially produced baby foods, we were waiting for a later stage and then giving our kids the same food we were eating. This approach is becoming popular again with baby-led weaning where parents basically wait until their child is physically old enough to cope with family food and then allow them to eat what solid foods they would like to try.
For some reason, food manufacturers tried to encompass the “grown-up food” idea when they were producing purees and semi-solid foods resulting in the dubious “vegetable omelet” and “Egg and bacon breakfast” seen above.
3 Still Going Strong
By the time we reach the 1970’s, moms were beginning to push back against the notion that the scientific community knows best about child rearing and they started to regain confidence in their ability to mother their children according to what they, as a mom, feel is best for their child.
This created a problem for the commercial baby food producers who began to rely on their heritage as a selling point. If mothers were looking backward, then perhaps they would stop looking once they saw this vintage baby food.
2 Stages Of Feeding
Let's get back to Amy Bentley, who also said about this period:
“There begins to be some scientific evidence that it probably is not the best thing to feed an infant solids so early. This is, in part, because of the way that baby food is made during that period, which is with a lot of additives, sugar, and salt. Also, an infant's digestive system is not equipped to digest solid food so early. The best food is breast milk.”
It is now we start to see the introduction of labels that say things like “first stage” that indicated they would be the first level of puree to try your baby on. However, there is still not a lot, if anything in the way of age labeling.
1 Thanks, But No Thanks
Most people who have fed their baby a puree they bought from the store have tried the stuff and discovered that the desserts and some of the savories taste OK. Gerber however, took this to mean that we would want to buy ourselves baby food and in 1974 “Singles” was born.
These small servings of food were produced and packaged in such a way that they looked almost exactly like baby food except for the depressing product name that let everyone at the store know that you were still a singleton.
Not surprisingly it didn’t catch on and was withdrawn shortly after its release.
References: Splendidtable.org, everydayfamily.com, foodtimeline.org, nationalgeographic.com, mentalfloss.com, encyclopedia.com, theatlantic.com