Babies have taste buds too, and they like to use them. But finding the best ways to appeal to their delicate and emerging sense of flavor can be tricky. The goal is to create products that balance flavor and nutrition in such a way as to train babies’ palates to prefer nutritious foods. The processors who crack this code recognize that not only will it lead to healthier babies, but the parents will throw themselves at their feet in gratitude.

Infant and toddler nutrition concerns are about to become even more important than ever. The USDA will soon issue its 2020 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), and they will include, for the first time, guidelines for kids aged 0-2 years. Previously, all iterations of the DGAs were for persons over 2 years of age.

Although it’s great that the government has decided to be more inclusive, the new paradigm will not be without its problems. Foremost, there just aren’t all that much data on the nutritional needs of babies and toddlers, especially data that would be useful to the industry developing foods for them.
Infant nutritional requirements have often been merely extrapolated from those for adults. Why so little research? Because we don’t do experiments on infants and toddlers, and probably—hopefully—never will. Nevertheless, data or not, come 2020 all of America will have dietary guidelines for babies and toddlers, and industry needs to be ready.


FIT Babies

The Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) is a long-term, comprehensive dietary survey that looks at the feeding practices, nutrient intake, and food consumption patterns of infants and toddlers. There are three stand-outs among the key lessons learned from the most recent (2013) FITS study (published as a supplement to the August 2013 issue of the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism):

  • Babies get too many calories. This starts early, even before four months of age. Not to suggest that “diet” foods should be developed for infants and toddlers, but the quality of calories and ingredients will likely undergo ever-closer scrutiny with the new guidelines. Among infants and toddlers up to 24 months of age, latest statistics show that one in 10 has a high weight-for-length, and more than one in four 2- to 5-year-olds qualifies as overweight. The food industry needs to prioritize product development that is seen as contributing to the solution to this problem.
  • Dietary patterns can become well established by 24 months. This underscores how the products, ingredients, and nutrient quality of foods designed for this population are even more critical. Added sweeteners can be useful, but quantities needed to drive consumption of a product must be less than has traditionally been used.
  • Infants and toddlers are sponges and mirrors. The more they eat from the table, the more their parents’ eating habits—both good and bad—are absorbed and reinforced. Talking to parents about modeling good eating styles is essential.


The Bright Side

The good news is, there actually is plenty that we do know about feeding infants. Still, when putting that knowledge to use developing first and second foods for a baby, we need to think like a baby. Of course, we also have an obligation to that baby. Success is a matter of striking a balance between what we know they need and what helps them develop, and between what they like and what they’ll ingest.

Nurture Life Inc., a new meal delivery company, focused on achieving this balance by providing freshly made, wholesome, ready-to-eat meals for babies, toddlers, and kids. Its team of chefs and its pediatric dietitian collaborate on every menu to ensure that meals meet the changing nutritional needs of growing kids. Also, there is emphasis within the menu on introducing little ones to new flavors and textures.

“We create our meals and meal plans based on nutritional requirements for each stage of a child’s development, per the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines, balancing complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats,” says Jennifer Chow, co-founder of Nurture Life. “Our goal is to use organic, whole ingredients whenever possible and to maximize the nutrient content by incorporating a variety of ingredients. We also strive for the vitamin and mineral balance that is essential for growing kids. Our baby meal plans introduce variety to a baby’s diet right from the start, guiding parents through various food choices and removing the guesswork as to what they should start with and when.”

“All Nurture Life meals are developed with children’s health in mind using our rigorous analysis process, ensuring that each meal does not exceed daily fat, sodium, and cholesterol requirements,” adds Chow.

Nurture Life’s “Baby Stage 1” meal plan for starting solids promotes palate diversity as foods are introduced. Even color is taken into consideration, with a focus first on orange foods—butternut squash, Garnet yams—then quickly moves to greens with English peas and green beans, followed by legumes (pink lentils, garbanzo beans).

Nurture Life meals highlight important nutraceutical ingredients for developing bodies as well. Included are omega-3 fatty acids (via salmon and chia seeds), important for brain and eye development. Fiber-filled plant proteins in the form of lentils and black beans are included for healthy digestion, and hearty whole grains such as quinoa and whole wheat pasta are brought in as a rich source of vitamins and minerals.

When developing meals for six-month-old babies, Chow notes, “Development of our single-ingredient purées centers around shaping a baby’s taste buds for the future. Our goal is to establish vegetables as commonplace for babies with their first few bites, then to introduce fruit for better acceptance.”

Nurture Life creates new meals each season and tests its menu on babies, toddlers, and older kids. Their nutritionists’ age-appropriate menus build on each other. For example, they might start with a single-ingredient purée for six months and then take that ingredient/familiar flavor and pair it with something new for the next stage. They combine portion size, ingredients and balanced nutrition in every meal.


Boosting the Breast

Some news that even food product makers will applaud is that the average Western baby today is breastfed for longer than ever—about 50% longer than a generation ago, according to the FITS study. This means longer exposure to the antibodies, healthful fats, phytochemicals, and immunity-boosting compounds in breast milk. This is not to mention the wealth of micronutrients known and as yet undiscovered in milk delivered straight from the source.

While this means that they’re getting more of these unmatched nutritional elements of mother’s milk, it also means babies are exposed to the different compounds in mom’s diet. This is a good thing. Breast-fed infants tend to be less picky and less colicky than their formula-fed counterparts, and they enjoy greater exposure to the diverse flavors from foods and spices in their mothers’ diet. Individual preferences vary.

Some mothers have found they must stop eating foods loaded with pungent compounds, such as garlic, because the baby won’t feed. Yet, some babies whose parents have a food culture rooted in places like India and Bangladesh, where all forms of spices and curries dominate, are not at all fussy about spices.

Still, breast feeding often is not as easy as presented. Breast feeding is a two-way street between baby and mother, and both have to learn to be in sync. Once mother and baby find their rhythm, other factors can make it difficult for this new team to succeed. For example, the mother’s milk production might not be sufficient.

Mrs. Patel’s LLC works to help women with lactation and postpartum healing from a nutritional standpoint. Company owner Anhoni Patel creates Ayurvedic medicine-based foods and beverages that draw on centuries-old medicinal traditions passed down through Indian families.
The product line consists of tea blends, snacks, and bars, all of which are full of herbs and ingredients (such as fenugreek, chamomile, nettle, and alfalfa) that have been traditionally used to increase lactation in breastfeeding women.

“Our products also are designed for the woman’s post-partum health, specifically so that she can better and more quickly heal after giving birth,” adds Patel. “The healthier the mother is, the better she can care for her baby. An ideal diet for a breastfeeding woman is full of protein and healthy fats. Our new product lines strive to provide these key components.”

Mrs. Patel’s best-selling product is its Chocolate Fenugreek Bar. It’s made from poppy seeds and fenugreek, which help boost lactation, and includes coconut and almonds, which provide healthy fats and proteins.


Think Like a Baby, Act Like a Parent

By one year of age, when beginning the weaning process becomes a priority for many parents, more than 80% of infants in the US are drinking cow’s milk. Transitioning from breast and bottle to cup is not immediate. Competency in cup drinking takes some time for toddlers to acquire.

When it comes to teaching cup drinking, it’s easy to find many a parent crying over spilt milk. The liquid is going to go everywhere and there’s no escaping it. To drink without losing liquid, kids first need to learn proper lip closure. Unlike suckling, cup drinking requires a different set of oral motor skills to bring liquid from the front of the mouth to the back to trigger the swallowing mechanism.

What can help make the process easier—for parents and kids alike—is a nutritious transitional beverage that’s thick enough to facilitate cup drinking more easily than thin liquids like plain milk. Thickened yogurts and milks can fulfill this role perfectly.

There are challenges to thickening dairy beverages. Dairy beverages are sometimes more difficult to texturize because of the different primary components—essentially fat, protein, and carbohydrates in a water base that originates as a perfect yet highly unstable emulsion. Further complicating matters, parents can be averse to offering even nutrient-rich dairy drinks if they perceive that these products contain thickeners and too much added sugar.

Dairy beverages thickened at least partially through culturing have extra value, not just because of their increased viscosity. Jo Ann Hattner, a registered dietitian and author of the book Gut Insight, promotes the probiotic value of yogurt and kefir drinks.

Once a pediatrician gives a green light to introduce cow’s milk protein, Hattner advises parents to “introduce a variety of live active cultures—these are the best sources of probiotics.” She recommends foods with diverse strains of cultures as well.

When it comes to teaching cup drinking, it's easy to find many a parent crying over spilt milk.

Love Child Brands Inc.’s Love Child Organics is doing just this with its “li’l shake” beverage product. The Canadian baby food company, founded in 2013 by Leah Garrad-Cole and her husband John, makes the non-GMO smoothie-like beverages with organic whole milk, fruits and veggies, and 24 vitamins and minerals.

“Babies’ bodies are small and sensitive,” notes Garrad-Cole. “Providing them with high-quality food is so important in their early years, and we pride ourselves on producing clean, simple, organic products that contain nutritionally rich ingredients and no preservatives.”

The shakes are designed to be used as a pediatric supplement beverage for children aged 12 months and older. 

“This protein-rich shake is perfect for kids who need an extra boost of nutrients in their diet,” Garrad-Cole adds.


Under Pressure

High pressure pasteurization has been narrowing the gap between fresh and processed foods. Pure Spoon Inc. took advantage of this recent technological breakthrough to create fresh fruits and veggies that are cold-pressed, cold-packed, and—as with Nurture Life—home-delivered.

Because of this production and distribution method, Pure Spoon is able to use fresh seasonal ingredients that are certified-organic. The company also enjoys high flexibility for changing formulations to continually deliver new foods and flavors that “start fresh and stay fresh until your baby eats it.”

Recognizing all-too-common nutritional gaps, Pure Spoon’s products include added iron and healthful fats. The company’s team works with a pediatric dietitian, in an allergen-free commercial facility. Fresh (never frozen) produce is made to order, prepared either raw or lightly steamed to preserve nutrition and flavor, without preservatives, additives, or colorants.

Developing products that are good for the entire family can be useful for processors wanting to help feed a new generation of healthy babies. Infants and toddlers are not little adults, but when the priority is on feeding them balanced, delicious, nutrient-rich foods, everyone can win.

Originally appeared in the April, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Better Babies.