The nutritional and organoleptic needs of the youngest demographic, as discovered by modern research and technology, are changing the creating of foods and beverages for infants and toddlers on a fundamental level. Processors small and large have begun applying those nutrient needs to products that are nutritious, tasty and – most of all – safe for delicate, growing and developing systems.
Two fundamental paradigms have changed in the way processors are developing products for infants and toddlers. First, manufacturers are no longer making foods or beverages that actually are geared toward adult sensibilities—but in softer textures and smaller amounts—and calling them kid products. Second is that even at the very earliest introductions of solid foods, this once-poorly represented demographic has a more unique and sophisticated sense of taste and smell than previously recognized.
The 2015 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be out sometime this year, but those are intended only for persons 2 years of age and older. Not until the year 2020 will Dietary Guidelines be issued specifically for the 0-2 year age group. Although federal regulators have not established specific dietary guidelines for infants and young children, nutrition for this group is still important. Infants still need to be fed and prepared foods are an important part of this process.
“Infants and toddlers” are often spoken of in the same breath but they are different and in vastly different stages of development. While “infant” technically refers to ages 0-12 months and “toddler” from 1-3 years, this doesn’t mean that development instantly changes once the age classification does. Giving a 3-year-old toddler a food developed specifically for infants seems inappropriate, even though everyone eats some puréed textures throughout life (pass the mashed potatoes, please). It’s a spectrum, and infant and toddler foods, including prepared foods, need to be considerate of rapidly changing development.
From a nutrition standpoint, one of the main reasons to start babies on solid foods is to give them an iron source once their internal body stores begin to be exhausted from months of exclusive breast feeding. Iron-fortified baby cereal often enters the picture at age 6 months.
The onset of solid feeding once focused strongly on refined rice cereal. This was primarily because rice has been considered hypoallergenic and easy to digest. The latest thoughts are that rice—white rice, specifically—need not be the initial cereal. It’s a good delivery vehicle for nutritionals such as the aforementioned iron, as well as folate and the required B-vitamins; but so are other grains that make up infant cereals, including whole grains. Although there might be individual tolerance among infants, the idea of always starting solids with rice cereal, then graduating to other refined grains has become old hat. There’s just no evidence for such an overly cautious—and, it now seems, possibly detrimental—approach.
Alan Greene, MD, founder of the award-winning drgreene.com website, is a practicing pediatrician and father of four. He’s an infant nutrition expert and author of Raising Baby Green and Feeding Baby Green. He also has been at the forefront of a fundamental shift in the approach to crafting foods for babies, especially moving away from the old paradigm of “white foods” that are predominantly low-nutrition simple carbohydrates.
In his assessment of the practice of using rice as a predominant, introductory “first solid food for baby,” Greene points to a study in which researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed rice eating and diabetes in about 200,000 people. The results, published in June, 2010, in the Archives of Internal Medicine, “revealed that those who ate white rice five or more times per week had a 17% increased risk of type 2 diabetes compared with those who ate it less than once a month. Separately, those who ate 2 or more servings of brown rice a week had an 11 % decrease of type 2 diabetes.”
Further, according to the study, it was shown that “the biggest difference came in those who chose brown rice or another whole grain instead of white rice—with up to a 36% reduced risk.”
One in three babies born today is expected to develop diabetes in their lifetime, adds Greene. “If we just made the simple switch from white rice to brown rice for babies, we might cultivate a taste for whole grains and prevent millions of people from developing diabetes,” he emphasizes.
“It’s time to change America’s first food,” Greene challenges. After the study’s release, he questioned, “What if white rice help[s] trigger diabetes and brown rice help[s] to prevent it, regardless of lifestyle? That’s just what the 2010 Harvard study suggests.”
Greene isn’t against rice. As he points out, brown rice, “is a delicious whole food, packed with flavor and with protective nutrients,” whereas polished white rice has had all the fiber and essential fatty acids taken out, as well as a good deal of the minerals, such as magnesium, iron, phosphorus and manganese. Plus its B vitamins and lignans, too, are removed.
“To make baby food rice cereal,” explains Greene, “the white rice is even further processed, and this depleted, out-of-balance, processed white flour becomes the eagerly-anticipated first bite of solids for most babies in the US.”
“How we feed babies in those early days matters for years to come,” Greene adds. “Most core food preferences are learned during critical early windows of opportunity. In America, we have raised a generation where most children learn to get Zero servings of whole grains daily by the time they are 18 to 24 months old.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has even stated that there’s no need for a particular order of introduction of foods. It used to be that parents started with cereal and then progressed to vegetables. The rationale was that introducing fruit before vegetables might condition the infant to prefer the sweeter taste and be less willing to eat vegetables. However, no real evidence has been found to support this. Now, any order is fair game, and that includes introducing meat.
Meat brings up the issue of protein. As infants and toddlers grow, their dependence on breast milk or formula, as well as milk in general (after age 12 months) as their primary source of protein begins to decrease. Milk is still an important protein and nutrient source, but they take more moderate amounts of milk by age 3 or so, and additional protein sources need to be introduced.
Meat and poultry can be introduced during infancy, along with the introduction of other solid foods. Exposing little ones to strained meat and poultry gets them used to the thicker and grittier texture of these animal proteins. There is often little added protein in combination entrée-type baby foods. Nutritionally, this is fine, as infants are getting plenty of protein from breast milk and formula, but it doesn’t do much to familiarize them with the taste of these protein foods.
It doesn’t matter what the ingredients in a food are if a child is physically unable to eat it. Taste is an important player, but prepared foods need to be developmentally appropriate delivery vehicles of nutrition.
It once was thought that thinner, puréed textures were easier for developing infants to eat and swallow. Many strained baby foods are thin to begin with and only get thinner the more they’re stirred up, with any water necessary for processing being released, sometimes by the small amount of food starch that was binding the puréed food. Halfway through that jar of carrots, a parent could end up with soup.
However, thicker textures can actually be better, and make for a more successful food, even for appropriately developed children learning feeding skills. Such [t]hicker textures (not necessarily chunkier textures) also give developing feeders more time to control the travel of food from the front to the back of the mouth, and prepare for swallowing. It also could make for less loss of food out the sides of the mouth (thus getting more nourishment into the infant).
Infant rice and other cereals have been added successfully to strained fruits, vegetables and meat or poultry in order to thicken them. Many infant cereal makers have been successful at creating cereals that mix easily into texture-appropriate thickness. However, it’s better if baby foods have a thicker texture to start, saving parents the hassle of doing the tableside prep.
Strained “stage 1” foods often do not contain anything but the single ingredient, but a thicker texture of similar foods might make it easier for infants and toddlers to get a better grasp of the feeding process more efficiently.
The nutrients most likely to be lacking in an infant or toddler’s diet include: calcium, vitamins A and C, iron, vitamin B6 and folic acid. Children eating a varied diet from all five food groups however, are very unlikely to need vitamin supplements. In fact, sometimes regular foods can cause an excessive intake of some nutrients.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, for example, excess beta-carotene can become an issue. It’s in so many prepared baby foods that it’s easy to see why an infant or toddler can acquire carotenemia. There are the obvious sources, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, as single foods. Parents exposing their child to many flavors and foods, however, might miss how often carrots are added to combination foods, especially entrée-type dinners.
Carrots and sweet potatoes are certainly nutritious and economic base ingredients for infant meals, but too much of these good things can increase the risk for benign carotenemia and perhaps more importantly, limit their diets and palates to a narrow variety of tastes. Benign carotenemia is harmless and fades after avoiding carotene for a few weeks, but it’s also a quick way to turn off a parent from a brand.
Once a parent begins giving prepared food to their infant or toddler, they can be limited to the variety of available products. Smaller supermarkets often regularly stock only basic baby foods: green beans, sweet potatoes, applesauce, peaches, chicken and vegetable combos, etc. Parents often have success with these foods, with their infants liking them early on. Rather than tamper with success, they continue on a pathway to a narrow variety of foods.
The 2008 Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) showed that most parents quit offering a food after it is rejected only three or four times. Babies tend to be slow to adopt a new food, or a new flavor or texture of a familiar food, and often need 10 or even 15 separate introductions before accepting it. And, of course, as with all of us, they reserve the right to change their minds about likes and dislikes.
Limiting the variety of foods in a child’s diet however, can limit nutritional intake and eventually lead to fussy eating. Developing prepared foods that expose infants and toddlers to as wide a variety of foods and flavors as possible can only be seen as positive.
Some ingredients have yet to make it into mainstream infant-toddler foods market. These include mature beans, such as red beans or favas; ground flax seed; and ancient grains, such as millet, quinoa and amaranth. Processors could have a challenge including these, because some of them might be unfamiliar to some parents. Even parents who are aware might be wary about these ingredients in toddler foods. However, as long as these ingredients are from reliable sources and the textures of the final foods are developmentally appropriate, such variety in the diet is a good thing. Even better, some of the smaller makers of foods for this channel are using some more adventurous ingredients such as chia.
Fish oil, and specifically the omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosa-hexaenoic acid (DHA), have been lauded in recent years for everything from brain development to curing conditions such as ADHD, asthma and dyslexia. While some of the more the immoderate attributes often lack enough evidence, these lipids are essential fats for development, especially of the brain and central nervous system.
As recently as a decade ago it was hard to find a processor of products for infants and toddlers including these vital ingredients in their formulations. Today, it’s as hard not to find omega oils so included. But they also are no longer limited to DHA and EPA.
Omega-3s are great for kids but the biggest fears parents have about giving their children fish are safety, allergies and rejection. It should be noted that for any products developed with added DHA and EPA from fish, the source must be clearly stated, given the potential for allergies to certain fish. Safety trumps everything, no bones about it. While bones are acceptable for adults in canned fish such as salmon (because the bones are soft), for an infant or toddler, it must be boneless fish only. Processors should take extra precautions in making any fish foods for children to ensure no bones or scales are in the mix.
Fish also raise the issue of mercury. However, there are plenty of popular fish considered safe when it comes to the toxic metal. Pollock, tilapia, catfish and cod are common. However, with more tank-raised fish available, using filets of barramundi that have been raised in enclosed, land-based tank systems can be the safest bet of all. Moreover, such varieties of fish tend to have a more neutral flavor profile and are thus more kid-friendly. The meat from these fish also tends to flake easily when cooked and thus form nicely into fish sticks and nuggets that are the quintessential kid finger foods.
Plant-derived omega-3s, such as ALA (alphalinolenic acid) found in foods like nuts, chia and flax–have a lower conversion rate to the more bioactive DHA and EPA found in marine sources. However, by adding ALA to plant-based foods, processors can eliminate any fish concerns. Plus, if any parents are vegetarian or vegan, plant-based ALA is a good way to go. A more ideal solution, however, can be DHA and EPA derived from microalgae. After all, the microalgae they eat make up the key source of the lipids for fish and seafood.
Nurture Inc.’s Happy Family Brands covers both bases with its Happy Tot’s “Grow & Shine Organic Toddler Milk” product.
“Organic toddler milk is a significant milestone for both the toddler and the toddler food industry, and helps parents ensure that their active, growing children get the absolute best nourishment during their early years, so they can grow into happy and healthy kids,” says Happy Family founder and CEO, Shazi Visram. “The formulation offers essential nutrients that regular cow’s milk does not, including iron and DHA, which are necessary for a toddler’s physical and neurological growth.”
The Happy Tot’s toddler milk also features DHA, arachidonic acid (ARA) and choline for brain and eye development, antioxidants vitamin C and E for immune system support, as well as calcium and vitamin D for bone health.
“With 23.5 mg of DHA and 47 mg of ARA, each 7 oz serving provides one-third of the expert recommended daily amount of DHA for toddlers—essential, as a child’s brain triples in size from birth to age 2,” adds Visram.
Another brain development lipid, phosphatidylserine, (PS) is a vital component of cell membranes and necessary to nerve and brain cell signaling. It’s known to be provided by mother’s milk in breastfeeding infants. As a supplement, it typically is derived from soy lecithin. Some scientific studies indicate supplementing PS might provide beneficial effects for neural development, cognition and sensorimotor integration. PS, GRAS in the US since 2006, has been used in some infant formula products in Asia and northern Europe.
Of Baby Cows and Goats
Carolyn Ansley is CEO of Kabrita Inc., a Mississauga, Ont., company with a line naturally easy to digest, gentle non-GMO goat milk foods.
“Up to 55% of US parents report cow milk sensitivity symptoms in their toddlers,” Ansley notes. “Although cow milk has been considered a gold standard in nutrition for many years some children are sensitive to the macronutrients, in particular the protein. Vegetable milk beverages are not nutritionally suitable for toddlers and soy formula is recommended for only 1-3% of the population which left a huge gap in the market for children suffering from cow milk sensitivity.”
Kate Morrison, ND, is a board-certified naturopathic doctor and co-founder of Morrison helped develop the Kabrita line after noticing that children she treated for chronic congestion, rashes and digestive discomfort—symptoms she determined were indicative of cow milk sensitivity—recovered after being switched from cow milk or formula to goat milk/formula.
Morrison says this was beneficial, with goat milk being easier to digest and closer to human milk in its composition, especially in its amino acid profile. Another similarity to human milk Morrison points to is the closeness in make-up of the naturally occurring nucleotides present in goat milk. These, writes Morrison, are “key to most biological processes in the body and support cell growth and repair.”
Morrison further cites goat milk’s “ability to support healthy intestinal function and promote healthy gut bacteria…and aid in the metabolism of the essential nutrients children get from a healthy diet.” She describes goat milk as “naturally easy to digest” because it “forms a softer clump of proteins in the stomach compared to cow milk and thus “passes through the stomach and intestines at a similar rate to human milk.”
Since the fat in goat milk also is formed of smaller globules, it’s easier to metabolize and has almost twice the amount of short-chained fatty acids compared to cow’s milk. Goat milk also is rich in vitamins A, D, B1, B2 and B12, and the minerals (calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc and iodine. Caution should be exercised, however, if considering using goat milk as a substitute for a cow milk in cases where an allergy has been medically confirmed; that is, when the body suffers an immediate immune system response to a specific protein in cow milk or other dairy source. About 2% or 3% of children under age 6 have such an allergy, especially to the αs1-casein protein.
Morrison says research has demonstrated that the iron—a critical nutrient for growth and development as well as metabolism and organ function—in goat milk is “better absorbed, more bioavailable and better retained in a goat milk diet than in a cow milk diet.”
Healthy bacteria in the gut help children break down food, absorb nutrients and—perhaps most importantly—train the immune cells in the digestive system not to react against food. Such reactions can result in food sensitivities. Goat milk contains oligosaccharides that act as prebiotics, fueling the growth of good bacteria in the g.i. tract. According to information from Kabrita, components natural to goat milk also have been “shown to reduce intestinal inflammation, promote healing, and promote the growth of favorable bacteria.”
While goat milk still contains relatively low levels of this protein, it can still trigger a reaction in such allergic persons. Some persons who are cow milk intolerant (not the same as lactose intolerance; goat milk does contain some lactose) have had success with goat milk, but if a child has the above described true allergy, parents should check with physicians before making a goat milk substitution.
Dr. Greene concurs, but adds that, if processors are going to use plain goat milk, the biggest things to be aware of are the vitamins—especially vitamin B12 and folate. Children who do not receive supplemented amounts of these vitamins are at risk to develop megaloblastic anemia.
“The other critical thing to be aware of is that a bacterium called brucellosis can occur in goat’s milk,” Greene writes, so it should be boiled before giving to babies.
Taking these factors into account, the formula developed by Kabrita starts with pure goat milk derived through the highest quality of production possible as a base for its formula, adapting it with a proprietary fat blend that mimics human milk. It then is fortified with the vitamins and minerals toddlers need.
“Since Kabrita’s mission is to provide the highest standard of nourishment for children suffering from cow milk sensitivity while inspiring parents and healthcare professionals with expert nutrition education, it’s in keeping with that mission to have a deep desire to understand and optimize our ingredients and processes while providing total transparency about what we do and why,” adds Ansley. “This often means pushing all of us, including our suppliers outside our comfort zone when it comes to the information we share with the public.”
In Their Cups
Once little ones transition from breast and/or bottle feedings to sippy cups, a concern is that they drastically decrease their consumption of milk. The problem however, is that when milk intake decreases, so does the power-packed nutrition that milk delivers, especially the protein, vitamin D and calcium.
Alongside the deficit in the nutrients that come from milk is the concern that the previous liquid nourishment will be replaced with high-sugar juice and juice drinks. The domination of fruit juice in a child’s diet has raised voices of concern for several years. While some pure juices are good sources of needed vitamins, even when naturally sweet with no added sugar, all but a few percent of calories are from sucrose and its components, glucose and fructose.
Enter yogurt. Yogurt has thickness without grit, thus is great for older infants and toddlers, and it’s a great protein source that’s a “food” rather than a drink, even when in drinkable format such as kefir. Plus it’s a good vehicle for fortifying with folate and vitamin D.
The idea of drinkable yogurt is not new but marketing it as a way to help kids learn cup-drinking behavior is an idea whose time is ripe. It moves more slowly than thinner liquids like juice and water, and allows the child more time to bring the liquid from the front of the mouth to the back of the mouth. Younger kids need that time when they’re learning cup drinking.
Yogurt can help replace some of the milk a child needs and, when combined with strained fruit, helps meet requirements for the fruit group. Parents like this idea because thicker liquids mean less spillage and wasting. (There also is the marketing benefit of thick, kefir-like yogurt and strained fruit mixtures being presented as a viable method to teach cup drinking.)
Yogurt is a fermented food, feeding the good bacteria in the gut and introducing beneficial bacteria of its own into the digestive tract. Also, it doesn’t even have to be sweet. In many cultures (no pun intended), plain and even salted yogurt is served with a main meal. Greek yogurt can be a great meat substitute—possibilities open up for processors developing items such as Greek yogurt puréed with savory vegetables.
Probiotic bacteria have been proven to be a key factor for maintaining healthy digestion. This is critical for those still-developing g.i. systems.
“With 70% of the immune system connected to the digestive tract, having healthy digestion is critical,” says Armin Salmen, PhD, vice-president of R&D for NextFoods Inc. “This is important to the overall health and wellness of children as well as adults. Studies suggest that probiotics may help balance bacteria in your gut to maintain healthy digestion.”
In fact, the use of probiotics in vehicles such as infant formula products designed for children as young as post-natal is fast becoming a standard. According to Lux Research Inc., That said, infant formula containing beneficial microbes will account for a 76% share of the $22.9 billion market channel by the end of 2024, hitting some $17.3 billion. This equals a CAGR of 28% from the most recent figure of $1.45 billion, logged in 2014.
As important as the use of probiotics for children is shaping up to be, for some people, especially children with dairy allergies, acquiring those good bacteria via dairy might not be the most efficacious method. NextFoods Inc., however, makes GoodBelly juice-based probiotic beverages. The extensive line of dairy-free, soy-free, vegan and non-GMO alternatives to yogurt and kefir and are designed to enhance the natural beneficial bacteria in the g.i. tract with 20-50 billion CFUs (colony-forming units) Lactobacillus plantarum 299v, a strain of one of the more important types of bacteria found naturally in a healthy digestive tract.
While there have been scores of studies on probiotic therapy for infants and toddlers, and probiotic foods and beverages have been deemed safe for children, notes Salmen, “it’s suggested that parents first check with the pediatrician before giving probiotic products such as GoodBelly to the
littlest young ones.”
FACTOID: Makes Sense
It’s long been established that babies bond by smell to the mother and can identify her scent immediately after birth, thus generating a unique attachment to her. Clinical research has further indicated that the unique scent of the mother especially from around her breast is vital to a baby’s feeding success, due to unique pheromones that guide the baby and promote suckling. Recognizing this, Robert Österbauer, MD, was inspired to develop Mamascent—a pad the mother wears inside the bra for approximately three hours before clipping it to the baby bottle. Whether being fed by mother, father, grandparent or any caregiver, the baby smells the scented petal, thus replicating the sensory experience of breastfeeding. For processors, the take-away is that, while strong smells in foods and beverages for babies—say, the aroma of some concentrated vitamin premixes—might be subliminally off-putting, aromas still play a key part in a small child’s enjoyment of a product.
Preservation Techniques for Baby Food
Jason Jacobs, director of product development, Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp.
At Beech-Nut, we target multiple goals in preparing our fruits and vegetables. The first goal is conserving the nutritious goodness of nature to bring to the consumer. Fruits and vegetables are the main source in the American diet of phytochemicals such as carotenoids, flavonoids, isoflavonoids and phenolic acids.
Diets high in fruits and vegetables are proven to help reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, and it is important that they are a part of the diet from the earliest stages possible. Multiple health benefits have been attributed to the high amount of these phytochemicals, the majority of which function as antioxidants in the human body.
The preparation of fruits and vegetables can destroy these compounds. Studies on apple processing have shown that, after heat processing and enzyme deactivation occurs, there can be a reduction in oxidation activity of up to 70%. Lowering heat exposure, however, can help maintain the natural amount of these phytochemicals and make the processed fruits or vegetables more nutritionally similar to fresh fruit and vegetables.
Beech-Nut’s strategy for preparing fruits and vegetables is to reduce heat-processing as much as possible without diminishing stringent food safety standards. To achieve that, the company’s technicians developed a system to purée fruit and vegetables with minimal heat or added water to create products more vibrant in color, flavor and nutrients.
Making products without adding artificial ingredients, or preservatives such as ascorbic or citric acid, can be a challenge, especially when it comes to processing fruits such as pears or apples that turn brown by the time they’re finished being puréed and blanched (enzyme deactivation). This is the reason baby food processed in the traditional manner requires so much added citric and ascorbic acid—vitamin C—to retain color. At Beech-Nut, the air is removed at the same time the cold purée is created in order to stabilize it and allow it to retain its color.
One of the main benefits to the air removal system is that the food colors are vibrant and stable without the need to add artificial ingredients. These brighter colors that resemble the colors of fresh fruit and vegetables stand out to children and encourage them to sample more. Studies have shown that purples, blues and reds are more appealing to infants over the age of two months.
Beech-Nut has been able to introduce products with these colors by using high-nutrient, vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables such as beets, aronia berries, blackberries etc., and the use of our new processing system that retains these visually stimulating colors.
Studies also have shown that a majority of the antioxidants found in fruits such as apples are found in much greater quantities in the peel or pomace of the fruit. Most baby food was traditionally made with the idea that manufacturers needed to strain out all of the fiber and peels so the baby could digest it easier. This however reduces the nutritional value and antioxidant activity of the food, plus it has now been established that these nutrients are beneficial even to young digestive systems.
A variety of ingredients is a key design principle as well. The cold purée system allows for the use of ingredients high in healthy fats and proteins. This also allows Beech-Nut to incorporate ingredients such as avocado, kale and legumes and give parents a greater number of meal options than ever.
Recent studies show that food preference starts in the womb and is constantly changing as the infant grows. Introduction of a wide variety of foods is essential to the process of infants developing a wide food palate later in life. Beech-Nut focuses on not just providing sweet tasting foods in its early stage products but also savory, sour and bitter foods to provide infants and parents with new and unique combinations to help prevent infants from developing food biases later in life.
An Interview with Nurture Inc.’s Happy Family Brands founder and CEO, Shazi Visram
PF: Beyond the known nutrition needs, what should product developers most consider when targeting foods for infants ages 0 to 18 months?
Visram: Babies’ brains triple in size from birth to age 2, which is why, at Happy Family, we are focusing on how choline, which supports healthy brain development, is such an important nutrient for growing babies. You can find choline in eggs and dairy products, however not all babies are introduced to dairy until 12 months. This is why we incorporated choline into our Happy Baby Puffs and our Happy Baby cereal line.
Also, probiotics, often called “good” or “helpful” bacteria are live active cultures. They’re great for babies since they help support a health microbiome—that is, the collection of good bacteria essential for supporting a healthy immune system.
PF: Where is the infant/baby/toddler food category is headed? Where will be in 2020?
Visram: When Happy Family first launched its products in 2006, organic made up only 6% of the category; now it makes up nearly 40% in some channels. We believe that all babies and toddlers should be fed 100% organic foods because this age group consumes significantly more fruits and vegetables per kilogram of body weight than adults do (according to a National Research Council report).
I believe organic will well surpass conventional baby food by 2020.Happy Family also expects to see further segmentation based on dietary restrictions. Moms and dads are waking up to the sensitivity of babies to gluten, dairy and soy, and they will want to be able to choose the right organic and convenient options that also meet their needs.