Decrying outmoded or unusual child-rearing practices is something of a cherished American pastime: Consider our gleeful tsk-tsking over the sight of Mad Men’s Betty Draper chain-smoking while pregnant, or the fracas last year around a New York Times article about the Brooklyn trend of letting babies go diaperless.

book cover: Inventing Baby Food

In the realm of feeding especially, moral certainty and the latest scientific assurances tend to unleash a deluge of advice on what’s best (and worst) for baby—with a cacophony of physicians, bloggers, and nutritionists now weighing in on when and whether to breast feed, and what a child’s first table foods should be.

Amy Bentley’s book Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet offers a welcome respite from all that noise. In this history of how, in about 70 years, the United States transformed from a land where the vast majority of infants consumed nothing but breast milk for the first 12 months of life to one where the average baby ate 72 dozen jars of processed food before his or her first birthday, Bentley, an associate professor of food studies at Steinhardt, explores the forces that have shaped our thinking on childhood nutrition. It’s a uniquely American story that ties together developments in industrialization, feminism, science, family life, and advertising over the course of the 20th century.

At the height of popularity of commercial baby food and formula in the late 1960s, rates of breastfeeding reached an all-time low, with 20-25% of infants breastfed at birth, and only 5% still being breastfed 6 months later. Doctors heartily endorsed the use of baby food, and sample jars were given to new mothers as they exited the hospital after giving birth.

Then, of course, came the backlash. In the 1970s, consumer advocacy groups began to question the amounts of salt, sugar, and preservatives added to baby food, and to demand greater transparency in ingredient listings. New studies suggested that too much food too early could lead to obesity and dental problems later in life. And a new generation of feminists advocating a return to “natural,” pre-industrial motherhood began to publish recipes for homemade baby food.

While it can be tempting now, in our own “breast is best,” do-it-yourself organic everything era, to dismiss baby food’s midcentury heyday as an unfortunate fad driven by advertising dollars and bad science, Bentley cautions against such smugness. In 2011, Americans spent $6.2 billion a year on baby food, and today it remains a leading segment in our food market, with alternative and “all-natural” brands springing up in response to 21st-century concerns about the safety and nutritional value of processed foods.

Moreover, the evolution of those cute Gerber jars (and now even-more-portable pouches), she writes, “reminds us of changes over time in scientific understanding, cultural imperatives and values, and feeding practices and food habits, and it is probably naive to assume that we have arrived at a place of finality. What we perceive today as the best practices in infant food and feeding will undoubtedly change in the future.” 

In the meantime, NYU Stories sat down with Bentley to talk about mushy peas, the economics of breastfeeding, and the anxiety mothers of every generation have felt about living up to “expert” advice.  

—Eileen Reynolds

Amy Bentley

You write in the book about the rise, in the first part of the 20th century, of “scientific motherhood,” and how authority shifted from mothers to doctors and scientists. How did that lead to the rise of baby food?
It seems weird to us now because today we're so comfortable with this idea of breast milk as this perfect fluid, perfected over millennia to provide all the things that an infant needs. But in the mid-20th century there was such an optimistic belief in science and progress that people really thought we could do better—that we could unlock the secrets of nature and improve upon it. At the same time, breastfeeding was associated with primitivism and backwardness—breastfeeding was common in the developing world, so it didn’t seem like a very progressive and modern thing to do. Also, there’s the discovery of vitamins in the early 20th-century: With industrialization, baby food preserved fruits and vegetables in an easy accessible form—made them shelf stable and available all year round, hence increasing the amount of vitamins infants could be fed. It was a perfect storm of science, technology, power, wealth, and modernity—so in the space of just 20 or 30 years you had a breathtakingly quick decline in the ages at which babies were fed food.

You write that some people have argued that the whole baby food “stage” was an unnecessary one artificially constructed by the food industry. Do you agree?
I think it’s more complicated than that. This is a story about convenience, which is part of the larger story of American culture—the culture of efficiency. Baby food gave women flexibility. They could leave the house and take the jars of baby food with them, or they could take a child to a babysitter and know that there will be food available for that child. It allowed women to go to work in much greater numbers. It’s important to remember that breast milk is “free” but it comes with costs: You have to have the time and luxury, and if you’re working, you have to have the technology. On the other hand, like any good American idea baby food was taken and pushed to the nth degree: If we can feed a child at 6 months, why not feed him at 6 days? [laughs] So the rise of baby food inserted food at a much earlier age than was necessary. And it was food that at one point had a lot of salt, sugar, and preservatives—stuff that wasn't very good for infants.

Critics of commercial baby food have claimed that eating it sets up an infant for a lifetime of eating processed “junk” food. Is there scientific evidence to support these claims?
Studies on this are just emerging, so I’m hesitant to say that there’s one definitive answer. But there are studies pointing to palate development earlier than we ever dreamed—including in utero. Amniotic fluid is flavored by the food a woman eats, so if a woman is eating the signature spices of her culture, that baby comes out sort of acclimated to those spices already. It’s also true that we’re hardwired to like sugar, salt, and fat for biological reasons—and when there’s so much of that in the environment, it’s easy to overdo it. There are studies demonstrating that visual cues matter as well—if all babies see are beige, pureed foods, then something with a brighter color or rougher texture might not even look like food to them. And Leann Birch at Penn State has shown that it takes about a dozen encounters with a food before a child will like or even want to try it.

Given all those concerns, some parents are now spending hours in the kitchen making their own baby food. But is it really so bad to crack open a jar once in a while?
In researching this book I got a lot of anecdotal comments from women saying things like, “My daughter’s crazy—she works all day and then stays up all night making her own baby food!” But, you know, I might do it too, if I had babies today. Some women may feel pressured to do this, and some may say “no way.” But for others this is an interesting and empowering challenge. I think the whole DIY movement is a reaction to industrialization and routinization, to feeling that I don’t do anything distinctive, I don’t make anything with my hands.

A key theme in the book is how being a mother and being a consumer are intertwined, and how shifting ideas about what is best for baby play out in different eras. In the 1950s, if you were a mother who didn’t feed your child Gerber baby food within a month of birth, you might have felt anxiety, because that was what a good mother did. Now if you’re a mother in a certain demographic and you don’t make your own baby food, there’s a twinge of wondering: Am I a good mother?

In every period it’s almost like a religion—here’s this one magic bullet for the best way to feed your child. But really, if you cover the basic parameters, a kid’s going to be okay. You get them enough food and nutrients, keep them warm, love them, change their diaper, and the kid is going to be fine. We all have our psychoses and neuroses, but history has shown that, though we suffer from a few health problems, a generation raised on baby food and formula have turned out okay.  

Listen to Amy Bentley interviewed by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer.