The primary job of every parent is to nourish their child. This has been traditionally accomplished during the first two to three years of the child’s life where the parents are in charge of “what, where, and when” their toddlers eat. This concept called “the cardinal rule of toddler feeding” was popularized in the 1990’s by my colleague, Ellyn Satter. In this model, parents have control over what their child perceives as “food” and what their child accepts and eats as “food”, simply by controlling what is brought into the home as “food” for their child.
But times are changing. Over 50% of families now have both parents working outside the home. This has given rise to the current “nanny state” which cuts into food preparation for many families, leaving parents in need of realistic, “fast” food alternatives for their infants and toddlers.
So who else, besides you, is in charge of feeding your infant? In addition to parents, caregivers, nannies, grandparents, and day care workers are all involved in feeding our children. By virtue of this widespread cultural shift in infant and toddler care, a strong argument can be made that the greatest influence on feeding your child is the rapidly growing commercial/toddler food market.
Currently, over 17,000 new commercial “foodstuffs” are introduced into the infant/toddler food market per year. Of these new “foodstuffs”, Barry Popkin, Ph.D, food researcher from the University of North Carolina, says, “80 percent are laced with hidden, or added sugars.” The growing market of these “foodstuffs” are targeted to the parents of young children. This growing industry depends upon your selectivity and access.
Simultaneously, the fastest growing age group for the greatest increase in childhood obesity over the last decade is in our 2 to 5 year olds. Dr. Robert Lustig, in his book “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food and Obesity” (Penguin Books 2014), issues this warning: “One fourth of our children are now obese. “No child wants to grow up obese. Yet, Lustig claims, “They are the victims of a toxic food environment.”
What then, is the definition of an infant/toddler “foodstuff?” How do you differentiate between choosing a “foodstuff” for your infant or toddler, and “real food”?
For this we reach out to Michael Pollan, NY Times contributor and author of “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual”. His rule for recognizing what is “real food” is quite simple: “Don’t eat anything our great-grandmothers would not recognize as food.” From there, he wisely suggests we avoid foods containing ingredients that are unpronounceable, foods with high fructose corn syrup, and foods that have some sort of sugar in the top three ingredients. Pollan’s wise counsel can apply to us, as well as our infants and toddlers.
Dr. Lustig also reveals that the new infant/toddler convenience foods are often reformulated during processing to encourage oral acceptance by your infant or toddler. According to Dr. Lustig, these “foodstuffs” are simply commercial commodities, reformulated to be addictive substances. For example, the new, highly successful product of “squeeze bags” are serving toddlers pureed vegetables with fruits. This is a “foodstuff” designed to make a product that is just sweet enough for the infant or toddler to find enjoyable.
And that brings us to “the bliss point” in commercial infant/toddler foods.
In the 1970’s, Joseph Balintfy, a Boston researcher who used computer models to predict eating behavior, found that “our liking of food rose as the amount of sugar was increased, but only to a point. After that peak, adding more sugar diminished the allure of food.” This peak he defined as the “bliss point”. It is a recipe for success among commercial infant/toddler food manufacturers. When used to create a more palatable product – that is, low in fiber, with added sugar or fat; what we believe to be real food for our infants, has been reformulated to be an addictive substance.
The Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, PA, is home to hundreds of physiologists, chemists, neuroscientists, biologists, and geneticists who are the world’s foremost authorities on taste. Dr. Julie Mennela is a biopsychologist at Monell specializing in the influence of food and flavors on children. “Humans like sweetness, but how much sweetness?” she asks. “For all ingredients in food and drink, there is an optimum concentration at which the sensory pleasure is maximal. This optimum level is called ‘the bliss point’.” This means that by processing infant and toddler foods for parental convenience, we are training our children to believe that all food should taste this way. (See: Michael Moss, “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us”; Random House, 2013)
The message is clear: biochemistry comes first. The current product driven infant/toddler food market in the US does not match your infant or toddler’s biochemistry. From six months to three years, there is a “window of opportunity” based on your child’s developing sense of taste and flavor, where what you feed them can impact their food preferences now and later, and as adults throughout their lives. Palate training, where you choose to offer real, savory foods to your child is a journey of your child’s biochemistry -- from tongue to brain.
Starting as early as 4 months, parents may now offer “tiny tastes” of a wide variety of savory “real” foods. This practice of exposing our children to traditionally what has been labelled as the “challenging vegetables”, can actually positively influence their future food preferences and eating behaviors. How many times do parents need to offer tastes of new foods before a baby will accept it? About 10 to 25 times, according to Dr. Mennela. What you model first, as “real food” for your infant through palate training, is the foundation of your child’s future preferences for food.
What starts as “real food” in the home, goes with your child out into the world.
Cynthia Epps, MS, IBCLC, RLC
Infant Feeding Specialist