Updated: May 30
As much as we love the idea of serving our little ones homemade, fresh food every day, sometimes that’s just not realistic. Finding the best baby food does require some time reading labels, but that’s not easy to do if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Thankfully Shae Rickards, our Paediatric Dietitian expert and Nutrition Manager at Bellamy’s Organic provides a quick guide to what to look for to make good choices when buying store bough baby food.
What to look for in store-bought food
Review the ingredients
The general rule of thumb, the fewer ingredients listed, the better. Importantly, food labels list ingredients in order of greatest amount to least amount. "When reading the label, the first three ingredients are crucial," she says. "I recommend choosing brands that have core foods like cereals and vegetables and limited-to-no added ingredients such as water to ensure adequate nutrition. Babies have small tummies so when choosing foods, they need to be nutrient-dense. If fillers are used, Shae’s tip is to check that they are low down on the list. Rickards also says not to be misled by the name of the product; you always need to read the ingredients to see if what you are getting is in fact true. For example, a product might be called ‘Salmon Risotto’, but it might only have 4% salmon in the ingredients list.
No added salt or sugar
Check the ingredients list for added refined sugars including cane sugar, coconut sugar, dried yoghurt, and other sugars (such as glucose or syrup). The concern with sugars is that frequent consumption is associated with an increased risk of dental caries and obesity. Check the nutrition panel for sugar content per 100 g and choose products lower in the category. For example, when choosing a yoghurt, look for the lowest in sugar per 100g.
Shae also recommends avoiding products with concentrated or processed forms of fruit such as fruit puree, fruit juices, fruit juice concentrates and fruit paste which can act as a sweetener and isn’t as nutrient-dense as whole fruit. A product can claim to be ‘no added sugar’, but it can still contain concentrated or processed fruit – check the ingredients list to see. Rickards also voiced that if babies and toddlers are given sweet foods like fruit purees regularly, they may not enough other nutrient-rich foods, such as vegetables and foods that contain iron. She also says, “babies and toddlers also acquire a taste for sweet foods, resulting in poor food choices later in life”.
Like sugar, salt is an unnecessary addition and babies can acquire a liking to them. A baby’s kidneys are also immature and unable to excrete excess salt. Check the sodium levels on the nutrition information panels to make sure they are less than 120 mg per 100 g.
Vegetable first approach
Choose more savoury baby food products and those with a higher percentage of vegetables on the ingredients list. Rickards says, “between 4 and 7 months of age, infants appear highly receptive to new flavours and generally require fewer exposures than older children to increase acceptance”. Children are born with preferences for sweet and salty tastes, but not for the bitter, umami, or even spicy tastes of vegetables. According to research, it can take 10-15 or more tastes for a child to accept new food, so babies need to be continuously exposed. Some savoury products are sweetened with forms of fruit so check the ingredients list! “The strategy of hiding or muting vegetable flavours, such as mixing them with fruit puree, reduces a child’s opportunities to learn and enjoy vegetable flavours”, Rickards says.
If you start your baby on purees, they will only be needed for a short period of time. A product might claim to contain chunky textures, but always make sure when you open the product it contains lumpy textures. If not, Shae says to mix some in yourself. Not progressing through textures means you’re not giving your baby the opportunity to bite and chew and start to use their back molars which can lead to feeding problems. Research has found that babies who were introduced to lumpy solids after the age of nine months ate less of the food groups at seven years old than those introduced between six and nine months old. “When food texture does not progress with the development of the child, they are not challenged to learn how to chew,” she says. Later, when they are given harder food, they tend to gag and refuse to eat anything apart from smooth, refined foods that can be sucked.
In summary, reading food labels is the best way to know how healthy a product is for your baby. Make sure your baby is receiving nutrient-rich foods whether you're making from scratch or purchasing from the grocery store. There are resources and apps that can help understand labelling. Try Eat for Health or the FoodSwitch app.
This article was written by Parents You've Got This Dietitian Expert Shae Rickards from Bellamy's Organic. For more information on starting solids, secure your spot in our Starting Solids and Infant Sleep Masterclass.