By Charlie Williamson ’19, Contributing Writer
On Friday, February 3rd in Masters Hall 110, Professor Amy Bentley spoke about how the invention of commercial baby food has shaped American notions of infancy and influenced what we eat as a society.
Bentley,a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, gave a timeline of how what we feed our children has developed over the last couple centuries, from the conventional wisdom of the 1800’s to the more science driven approach of the present day.
Up until the mid to 19th century, little was known about what to feed your baby. This time period was one before the discovery of germs and good nutritional practice. Many believed that infants had to be breast fed the first year of their life and that solid foods like fruits and vegetables were ‘cold and dangerous’ as oppose to meat and grains that were seen to make a child strong.
The limited knowledge set the stage for the first baby food producers. In the 1920’s, companies like Gerber marketed the idea that solid food was okay for babies to eat. The advertisement campaigns spurred themselves on the idea that you had to be a good mother to your child and that feeding them baby food was the responsible thing to do.
These campaigns proved wildly successful as baby food became the landscape of grocery stores in the 1930’s. Baby food became extremely accessible, which made it a typical household item throughout WWII.
By the end of WWII, and on the onset of the baby-boom generation, baby food had become the number one bought product in grocery stores. It also marked the disappearance of breast feeding. Bentley claims that the spoon used in baby food ads was important as “it was a marker of civilization…that we are a wealthy, civilized country contrasted with the primitive groups that breast feed their children.”
Bentley also added that baby food producers captured the high morale and arrogance of the post war period, which created this idea that “we can create food through science better than nature can.”
By the 1960’s, 90% of babies ate baby food and two-thirds were fed Gerber. However, in the 1960’s and 70’s, scientific research started to develop and people found out that baby food, which had high amounts of artificial fats and sugar, was not healthy for a baby.
As a result, breastfeeding started to come back, and cook books were created so moms could cook natural, healthy food for their children. This scientific research put pressure on baby food producers, who responded with organic baby food and no more baby food desserts.
Since the 1970s, there has been a constant struggle between the false advertising of the nutritional benefits of baby food and real science. Today, companies like Gerber and their fat and sugar filled baby food are still successful even though the science is clear that Americans have too much of those in our diets.
Bentley admitted that even she fed baby food to two of her three kids because of how easily accessible it is. At the end of the talk, an elder man who was a food packer for fifty years praised Bentley for her talk, “It was interesting because baby food and its highly industrialized and unhealthy ways is a microcosm for what is happening with all foods. The science is there, but people are lazy and will choose the easy way out, even if it means they are eating unhealthy foods.”