The Surprisingly Dark History of Baby Food

Read next

We work hard to be good moms. We do our research, give up sleep, and ensure our kids have the best chance at health, happiness, and success. At a minimum, we hope product choices we find are honest in their offerings, giving us one less thing to worry about.

This is why we’re taken aback when we hear news stories that shake the foundation of these facts. Like the latest news from the CDC that found that kids under a year are eating the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar PER DAY. That’s more than the recommended sugar intake for adults! What? How? The last thing we want to do is train our kids to crave sweet foods like candy, leading to the risk of diabetes, childhood obesity, and heart disease.

And yet, if we take a hard look at the history of baby food commercialization and the marketing tactics still used today, we find clues that explain how we got here.

I asked Amy Bentley, NYU Professor and author of Inventing Baby Food, about the history of baby food advertising. Here are 5 surprising facts you should know before you purchase food for your baby:


Original baby food advertisers latched on to the popularity of “expert culture” during the rise of organizations like the American Medical Association. Big baby food brands began to use “Doctor Recommended” as a way to advertise and sell their products, but what consumers didn’t know was that these health claims were often paid for. What was meant to be “better for your baby” was not always as transparent as it seemed. This continues to be a common practice among big brands today. 


A big trend during the first half of the 20th century was to guilt moms into buying jars of baby food by suggesting that time spent making baby food meant less time taking care of husbands. True story. Cue the eyeroll!


During the 1950s, Doctors began to encourage feeding solid foods after just one month (you read that right: ONE MONTH). Some doctors even pushed for solids just days after birth. Baby food marketers jumped on the bandwagon and capitalized on the opportunity to sell more jars.


White rice cereal and bland foods were once the gold baby food standard. But it’s now known that broadening your baby’s palate is important, and spices like cardamom, cumin, garlic, ginger, and turmeric help them develop taste. Not much has been done from an industry perspective to spice up baby food, which is why bland foods still dominate the grocery aisle.


Since the beginning of commercial production in the early 20th century, the problem with baby food has been added ingredients to make kids’ food more attractive. More recently, sugars from fruit predominate, meaning that products with less than one serving of kale can be marketed as a “healthy and organic” vegetable flavor.

While learning about marketing tactics and the history of baby food may be frustrating, understanding how we got here empowers us to make better choices. Knowing that most baby foods primarily use fruit sugars in kid’s products—even those marketed as veggie flavors—makes us aware of the problem and smarter about how we read labels. Always review nutritional information carefully and remember that in order to raise healthy eaters, we have to teach them to eat healthily.

Contrary to popular belief, kids are not born picky eaters. Picky eating is a learned behavior, so the more we focus on training their palates to accept a variety of flavors, the more kids can learn to enjoy bitter, tangy, earthy and savory foods that ease their transition to table foods and family meals. Try to skip or minimize the sugars in everyday foods and keep in mind that with a lot of practice and exposure, kids can learn to eat almost anything. Eating healthy is hard work and a long-term commitment that starts as early as a baby’s very first bite and continues through the rest of our lives.


I'm the Founder & CEO of Fresh Bellies baby food brand. I've won foodie awards, pitched to Shark Tank and appeard on Forbes and CNBC. Originally from Guayaquil, Ecuador, I live in New York with my husband, Fernando and daughters, Isabella and Alexa Luna.