Commercial baby foods don't meet infants' dietary needs when they are weaning, according to a new study.
That's because commercial foods are predominately sweet foods that provide little extra nutritional benefit over breast or formula milk, the researchers said. They also said commercial baby foods are marketed for use in infants beginning at the age of 4 months, an age when they should still be breast-fed only.
"The most commonly used commercial foods considered in this study supply no more energy than breast or formula milk and yet they are promoted at an age when they will replace the breast or formula milk, which is all that babies under six months really need," explained a team led by Dr Charlotte Wright, of the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
One expert in the United States said the study brings up important issues.
"Weaning from milk-based diets to food-based diets in this age range should not be taken lightly," said Dr Peter Richel, chief of the department of paediatrics at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, NY. "We must provide adequate nutrition to provide energy, consistent growth velocity and age-appropriate milestones in all areas of development," he said.
In the new study, Wright's team analysed the nutritional content of all baby foods in the United Kingdom that can be used during weaning, a time when infants are introduced to a wider range of food textures and flavours in order to encourage them to try different foods and boost their energy and nutrient intake.
The 462 products included ready-made soft, wet foods; powdered meals that are reconstituted with milk or water; breakfast cereals; and finger foods, such as rusks.
The researchers found that 79% of the products were ready-made spoonable foods, 44% of which were marketed for infants aged 4 months and older.
The energy content of the spoonable foods was almost identical to that of breast milk and their protein content was only 40% higher than formula milk, according to the study, which was published online in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Products that contained meat had the highest iron content, but this was no higher than formula milk and not much higher than products that did not contain meat. Dry finger foods had much higher levels of energy and nutrients overall, but also had particularly high levels of sugar.
Overall, nearly two-thirds of the products were sweet foods. The team said repeat exposure to sweet foods during infancy can lead children to develop a preference for such foods.
The main point of weaning foods is to increase the energy content of the diet and provide richer sources of nutrients, such as iron, Wright's team said.
"While it is understandable that parents may choose to use [these products] early in the weaning process, health professionals should be aware that such food will not add to the nutrient density of a milk diet," they said.
And although the study focused on products sold in the United Kingdom, Richel said, it is likely that American babies face the same nutritional issues.
"Offerings for infant foods [in the United States] are too sweet in general," he said. "Parents should be aware of processed foods, artificial sweeteners in fruits and 'baby-friendly' yogurts and yogurt drinks. These products seem so nice and easy, with great marketing, packaging and convenience."
The best baby foods, however, might be home-made. "In the early infant with first solids, it would be wonderful if parents took the time to prepare foods in their kitchen at home," Richel said. "For example, for fruits and veggies, one simply blanches them, blends a bit of liquid (breast milk, formula or water) and voila! A puree is made. Helpings can be stored in ice-cube trays for easy access."
Although home-made may be a bit less convenient, "the end result will be so worthwhile," he added. "What could be more important than the health of our children?"
The Nemours Foundation offers advice about weaning.