BABY FOOD. The consumption of food is an extraordinarily social activity laden with complex and shifting layers of meaning. Not only what we eat but how and why we eat tell us much about society, history, cultural change, and humans' views of themselves. What, when, and how we choose to feed infants and toddlers, the notion of "baby food" as opposed to "adult food," and whether or not these foods are nourishing and satisfying reveals how mass production, consumption, and advertising have shaped attitudes about infancy and corresponding parenting philosophies and practices. From the late 1920s to the postwar baby boom of the 1950s, mass-produced solid infant food, especially fruits and vegetables, shifted items of rarity into a rite of passage, a normal, naturalized part of an infant's diet in the United States. In the early twenty-first century commercially produced infant food not only remained a mainstay of an infant's diet in the United States but manufacturers also sought new markets, including developing countries.
Preindustrial First Foods
Historically, semisolid mixtures of grains and water, animal milk, or broth, variously known as "pap," "panada," or "gruel," have been the first semisolid food (also known as "beikost") an infant receives. (Cone, 1984, p. 12; Quandt, 1984). In many cultures mothers chew food, making it similar in consistency to gruel, then feed it to their infants. The earliest known infant feeding devices date back to the second or third centuries, though few specifics regarding their use are understood (Fildes, 1995, p. 116). Commonly infants have been introduced to pap mixtures as a supplement to breast milk. The pap then becomes an increasingly prominent part of infants' diets until they are completely weaned, which varies from several months old to three to four years of age.
Mass-Produced Baby Food
The industrialization of the food supply laid important groundwork for dramatic changes in infant feeding. By the 1920s in the United States canned goods were mass-produced in sufficient quantity to be affordable for most, allowing Americans to consume, among other things, more fruits and vegetables year round. Also at this time the discovery and promotion of vitamins helped change Americans' wary attitude toward fruits and vegetables. These foods previously were not fed to children before two or three years of age as they were thought to cause cholera and dysentery.
Thus the market was ripe for the introduction of commercially canned food for babies, especially produce. In 1928 the Michigan-based Fremont Canning Company, owned by the Gerber family, began producing strained vegetables for infants, which proved so successful that the company changed its name to the Gerber Products Company and became the exclusive maker of baby foods. By 1935 Gerber's biggest competitors, Beech-Nut, Heinz, and Libby's, entered the baby food market. Despite these competitors' quick development of their own mass-produced strained baby foods, Gerber managed to maintain its dominance of the market (Nisbet, 1954). Mothers, both those at home full-time and those with paid employment, embraced and benefited from commercially prepared solid infant food, and within a matter of decades the product became a common part of an infant's diet. The easy availability of, prominent advertising for, and increasing use of commercially prepared infant formulas acclimated mothers and doctors alike to infants' ingestion of substances other than breast milk.
Increasingly Earlier Introduction of Solids
In the late 1920s, just as Gerber began its national advertising and distribution of canned baby foods, the prevailing wisdom advocated introducing strained fruits and vegetables around seven months. The market for baby food increased with the idea that babies could eat solids, especially fruits and vegetables, at an earlier age. During the 1930s the recommended age was four to six months, and by the 1950s it was four to six weeks, with some doctors advocating feeding infants strained cereals and vegetables within days of birth. As this early introduction of solids became standard advice and practice, solid baby food, like infant formula, functioned not only as a supplement to but as a substitute for breast milk.
Commercial Baby Food: Modifications over Time
While mass-produced baby food increased infants' year-round consumption of fruits and vegetables and provided a welcome efficiency in preparation, it also had its deficiencies. Throughout most of the twentieth century commercially canned baby food was overcooked and contained added salt, sugar, starches, fillers, artificial preservatives, and even, though infrequently, dangerous contaminants, such as lead, glass shards, or pesticides. Moreover until the 1990s baby food manufacturers did not have to list the precise percentage of each ingredient on the label (Stallone and Jacobson, 1995).
Mass-produced baby food was created and became successful in response to an emerging industrialized society, meeting the needs of changing work patterns and an increasingly fast-paced lifestyle. It remained a rite of passage for most American babies at the advent of the twenty-first century, though with modifications. During the 1970s the return to breast-feeding and the renewed popularity of homemade baby foods were products of the public's more skeptical attitude toward corporate capitalism and institutions in general. In the 1980s and 1990s, mostly in response to consumer demand, baby food manufacturers eliminated sugar, salt, and modified starch from most products, introduced organic lines, and eschewed the use of any foods containing genetically modified organisms. Because of an overall declining birthrate in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, baby food manufacturers, to maintain and even increase market share, began to forge new markets, targeting Latino and African American populations in the United States and trying to expand market share in developing countries around the globe.
See also Lactation; Milk, Human; WIC (Women, Infants, and Children's) Program.
Cone, Thomas E., Jr. "Infant Feeding: A Historical Perspective." In Nutrition and Feeding of Infants and Toddlers, edited by Rosanne B. Howard and Harland S. Winter. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.
Fildes, Valerie. "The Culture and Biology of Breastfeeding." In Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, edited by Patricia Stuart-Macadam and Katherine A. Dettwyler. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995.
Quandt, Sara A. "The Effect of Beikost on the Diet of Breastfed Infants." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 84 (1984): 47–51.
Stallone, Daryth D., and Michael F. Jacobson. "Cheating Babies: Nutritional Quality and the Cost of Commercial Baby Food." Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) Report, April 1995. Available at www.cspinet.org.
Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York: Pantheon, 1982.
Stuart-Macadam, Patricia. "Breastfeeding in Prehistory." In Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, edited by Patricia Stuart-Macadam and Katherine A. Dettwyler. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995.
Tice, Patricia M. Gardening in America, 1830–1910. Rochester, N.Y.: Strong Museum, 1984.