No diet has been more obsessively studied, more fiercely controlled, or more anxiously stage-managed than baby food. Yet we still get it wrong.
On any given day, American children are more likely to eat dessert than plants. Makers of baby food face a conundrum: If it sells, it’s probably not best for babies. If it’s best for babies, it probably won’t sell.
In a laboratory in Denver, on a decommissioned U.S. Army base, a baby sits in a high chair with two electrodes attached to his chest. To his left, on a small table, a muffin tin holds four numbered cups, each filled with a green substance. On the walls and the ceiling, four cameras and an omnidirectional microphone record the baby’s every burble and squawk, then transmit them to a secure server in an adjacent room. What looks like a window with blinds, across the room from the baby, is in fact a two-way mirror with a researcher behind it, scribbling notes. The baby’s mother takes a spoonful of the first sample and lifts it to the baby’s mouth, and the experiment begins.
Building 500, as this facility was formerly known, has the looming hulk of an Egyptian temple: it was once the largest man-made structure in Colorado. When it opened, in 1941, four days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, threats to American safety were much on the government’s mind. (After the war, President Eisenhower spent seven weeks on the eighth floor, recuperating from a heart attack.) The Good Tastes Study, as the baby experiment is called, is in a similar spirit. The two electrodes on the baby’s chest will monitor his heart rate and how it fluctuates with his breathing. A third electrode, on the sole of the baby’s foot, will measure his “galvanic skin response,” or how much he’s sweating. Together, they’ll indicate whether the green substance is triggering a fight-or-flight response. Does the baby sense danger?
The enemy in question is kale. The four cups are all filled with raw kale leaves whipped into a smooth purée, or slurry, as food researchers call it. One sample is plain, another sweet, another sweeter still, and the last one salted. Sugar and salt can mask the bitterness in kale, but this baby isn’t fooled. No matter which sample he’s offered, he grimaces and turns his head, purses his lips, and swats the spoon away. The more his mother tries, the grumpier he gets, till he kicks his foot so hard that he jostles the electrode, disrupting the signal. “It’s just a thing that happens,” Susan Johnson, the director of the study and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado, told me. “Completely throws off the galvanic skin response. If you can find a body part that’s not in motion, let me know.”
Most babies could use a dose of kale: a half cup has more than a day’s worth of Vitamins A, C, and K. The only problem is that they hate it—or so parents and baby-food manufacturers seem to assume. Two years ago, when Johnson launched the study, she sent her graduate students to find some commercial baby foods made from pure kale or other dark-green vegetables. They couldn’t find any. The few that did exist were mixed with fruit. “I sort of blew it off at first,” Johnson told me. “I just sent them out again and said, ‘Try harder.’ ” They went to Kroger, Walmart, Whole Foods, and Sprouts; they scoured the organic markets in Boulder, then widened their search to the Internet. Still no luck. The closest thing they could find was a Polish product made with Brussels sprouts. “That’s when I started to get less frustrated and more interested,” Johnson said.
Food preferences are a chicken-and-egg problem. Do we choose them or do they choose us? The Good Tastes Study was designed to tease such mysteries apart. Over the next six months, a hundred and six babies will pass through Building 500 and try the samples. Afterward, two experts in human expression will scrutinize their faces on the videos. They’ll divide their features into zones of activity and classify every twisted lip and wrinkled nose according to a Facial Action Coding System. The system can sort adult expressions into emotional categories: Happiness, Sadness, Surprise, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Contempt. But baby faces are too pudgy for such specificity, Johnson says, so she’ll settle for positive, negative, and neutral. (When a baby makes a gesture known as “the rake” and claws the kale off his tongue, that’s negative.) She’ll correlate those responses with the electrode readings, compare them with the babies’ reactions to a control substance (oatmeal), and then circle back to see how the parents reacted to their children’s reactions.
Baby food shouldn’t be this hard. After a few hundred thousand years of raising children, humans ought to have this part down. No food has been more obsessively studied, no diet more fiercely controlled, no dining experience more anxiously stage-managed. Yet we still get it wrong. On any given day, a quarter of American toddlers eat no vegetables. When they do eat them, the most popular choice is French fries. Why don’t babies know what’s good for them? And why don’t we?
When my kids were young and peevish and a carrot could cause a revolution—when Ruby loved oatmeal but hated Cream of Wheat, and Hans loved Cream of Wheat but hated oatmeal, and Evangeline wanted no breakfast at all; when every dinner was like the Yalta Conference and the table like enemy terrain, booby-trapped with vegetables that could go off in your face—I took courage from Calvin Schwabe.
Schwabe was a man not easily disgusted. A veterinary epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis, he specialized in parasitic worms that get passed from dogs and wild animals to people and end up in their liver, lungs, and brain. When Schwabe moved to Davis, in 1966, after a decade studying tapeworm infestations in Lebanon and Kenya, he found the local culture a little tame. He was famous for taking grad students to ethnic restaurants and chiding the chefs for not using authentic ingredients. He hosted dinners of grilled guinea pig and deep-fried turkey testicles.
Squeamishness is more than a minor character flaw, Schwabe believed. It’s an existential threat. Even in America, people go hungry every day although they’re surrounded by perfectly nutritious food. Pets, for instance. “Some 3,500 puppies and kittens are born every hour in the United States,” Schwabe wrote in “Unmentionable Cuisine,” his cookbook of taboo foods, published in 1979. “The surplus among them represents at least 120 million pounds per year of potentially edible meat now being totally wasted.” “Unmentionable Cuisine” is a work of calculated outrage, but it’s not “A Modest Proposal.” It’s a practical guide, Schwabe wrote, for the not too distant day when people may have no choice but to eat stewed cat (page 176) and beetles in shrimp sauce (page 372). If we were all just a little less finicky, we could feed the world.
It’s a sensible argument, but then food preferences are rarely amenable to sense. Our tastes are us, we like to think. We were born hating lamb or fermented fish, even if half the world loves nothing better. And it’s true that everyone experiences food differently. The woman beside you on the bus may have three times as many taste buds as you do, and different genes regulating those tastes. Depending on which version of the TAS2R38 gene you have, you may be highly sensitive to bitter foods, mildly sensitive, or not sensitive at all. People with dense, hypersensitive taste buds are often called supertasters, and are said to represent about a quarter of the population. Another quarter, with sparse, insensitive taste buds, are called nontasters, and the rest fall somewhere in between.
But it’s not that simple. Supertasters don’t always live up to the name—in some studies, they react to food just as regular tasters do—and genetic effects tend to fade. Children who are hypersensitive to bitterness are often especially fond of sugar. But that predilection disappears in adults, while the taste for bitterness grows. Being a finicky eater makes evolutionary sense for a toddler, lumbering around sticking things in his mouth. Better to spit them out if they don’t taste familiar. But we learn to pick our poisons, and then to love them beyond reason. We go from Pabst to I.P.A., milk chocolate to dark, latte to espresso, homing in on the bitterness we once avoided. “Our biology is not our destiny,” Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, told me. “We’re omnivores, and there is a lot of plasticity in the brain.” Taste begins as nature and ends as nurture.
The index at the end of “Unmentionable Cuisine” is a gallery of horrors, or a good bedtime story, depending on the child: “Bat, baked,” page 209; “Donkey brains,” page 165; “Dormouse, stuffed,” page 208. Schwabe presents his book as a collection of culinary taboos, but it’s really the opposite: a celebration of what people will eat. Some Chinese love earthworm broth, and Zanzibaris feast on white-ant pie; the French have been known to eat eels with sea-urchin-gonad sauce, and some Hawaiians have a taste for broiled puppy. Human beings will eat damn near anything, it seems. You just have to start them young.
Late one afternoon in August, in a suburban kitchen in Scarsdale, New York, I watched a woman named Saskia Sorrosa roast beets for a baby-food recipe. Beets are kale’s dark twin in the baby-food family. Something about their loamy sweetness, the taste of iron and manganese that seeps through them like runoff from a rusty pipe, turns children off. “I used to use a little magical thinking,” Sorrosa said. “When my girls were little, I’d tell them that if they eat beets they’ll make rainbow poop.” Slender and tan, in a denim shirt and black jeans, Sorrosa moved about the kitchen with an easy efficiency. She peeled and chopped the roots, spread them on a cookie sheet with some fresh fennel, and drizzled them with olive oil. She did the same with a tray of asparagus and leeks, then put the trays in the oven. “But they also learned pretty quickly that there was only one meal. That was that. If they didn’t eat it, there was no dinner.”
Sorrosa is the founder and C.E.O. of Fresh Bellies, a line of organic baby meals that Walmart and Kroger began carrying this summer. Seven years ago, when she made her first baby food, she was thirty-three years old and a vice-president of marketing for the National Basketball Association. She had a six-month-old girl and could find nothing in stores to feed her that wasn’t insipid or sweet. “So I’d come home from work and make the menu for the week,” she said. “Two or three flavors, purée and freeze, then the same thing again two days later. I wasn’t just making peaches. I was making peaches with lavender, figuring out which vegetables to cook with onions and which ones with garlic. It was like having a second full-time job.”
Born and raised in Ecuador, Sorrosa speaks with her hands and in a rapid, ebullient English with no trace of an accent. Her father was a general manager for Del Monte in Guayaquil, then a banana farmer and exporter. He could afford to send his three daughters to an international school. Sorrosa came to the United States at seventeen to study communications at George Washington University, found work in Miami and New York, and eventually married a childhood friend. “My friends said it was like dating your brother,” she said. After their second daughter was born, two years after the first, Sorrosa quit her job and launched her business. She rented a professional kitchen, hired a chef who’d worked for Mario Batali, and began selling her baby food at farmers’ markets up and down the Hudson. Within three months, she was making as many as two thousand jars a week. This year, Fresh Bellies will produce half a million. Next year, the company should quadruple that number.
Baby food is in the midst of a golden age. With the rise of two-income families, home delivery, and ever pickier eaters, the global market has grown to nine billion dollars a year, sixteen per cent of it in the United States. Nine out of ten Americans have eaten commercial baby food for some period of time. Happy Baby, Tiny Organics, Once Upon a Farm, and dozens of other brands have joined in a scrum for the boutique market, over the bodies of fallen competitors like Bohemian Baby. One baby-food delivery service, called Yumi, promises to introduce babies to “over 80+ ingredients” in “the most nutrient-dense purees available.” Its lineup includes Kiwi Chia Pudding and Baby Borscht: “Superfoods for Superbabies.”
Sorrosa has a simpler goal. She wants her children to eat the way she ate as a child. “In Ecuador, we had whatever the adults were having—it was just puréed and given to babies,” she said. “I learned to eat spicy young.” On weekends, friends and neighbors would descend on her parents’ farm for buffets of ceviche and sancocho soup (a beef broth with mashed plantains and lime juice), braised goat stew and shrimp in peanut sauce. All of which found its way into Sorrosa’s mouth as she hung from her mother’s hip.
“Palate training” is the buzz phrase for this, though it makes babies sound a bit like interns at a wine bar. We learn to eat what we’re given to eat, and that education begins before we’re born. When a pregnant woman eats a green bean, its flavor winds its way into the amniotic fluid around her fetus, and later into her breast milk. “Carrots, vanilla, alcohol, nicotine, mint—I’ve never found a flavor that didn’t get through,” Julie Mennella told me. Those tastes, and the colors and textures of things that contain them, come to signify food in babies’ minds. Children whose mothers ate potatoes with garlic while pregnant, a study in Ireland found, are more likely to enjoy potatoes with garlic ten years later.
By now, Sorrosa’s kitchen was filled with the smell of roasting vegetables, earthy and sweet. She took the trays from the oven and let them cool, then puréed the beets and fennel with an herb stock made with oregano from her garden. She was doing the same with the asparagus and the leeks when her daughters came tumbling in, wearing summer dresses and pink headbands. Sorrosa handed them bags of beet chips and freeze-dried red peppers to eat. When I asked what their favorite foods were, Alexa, the five-year-old, tilted her head and scrunched her eyes. “Chicken nuggets? Hamburgers?” Her mother laughed and waved her off. “We never eat chicken nuggets,” she said. Then she took a plate and spooned the two purées on it, bright green and red like traffic lights, and handed it to me.
This was cheating, of course. No commercial baby food could be so fresh. To keep for weeks on a shelf, food has to be pressure-cooked at two hundred and fifty degrees, or simmered at lower temperatures and spiked with an acid to help fend off bacteria. Fresh Bellies takes the second approach. Its We Got the Beet flavor is tart with lemon juice and much rougher on the tongue than the suave purées she’d given me. It’s also three times as expensive as most baby food and has to be kept refrigerated. Still, it’s recognizable as food in a way that the gray sludge in jars often isn’t. And it has no added sugar or fruit. “You could mix it with chickpeas to make a really delicious hummus,” Sorrosa said, and she was right. This was baby food for grownups.
Sorrosa wasn’t teaching her girls to eat as she did in Ecuador. She was teaching them to eat as she does now, in Scarsdale, with cookbooks by Ottolenghi and the Barefoot Contessa on the counter. Her girls were contented omnivores, as she intended. But what part of their training was essential to their good health, and what part was just teaching them to be foodies like their mother? “I like Chop’t salad!” Isa, the seven-year-old, told me, trying to cover for her sister’s chicken-nugget comment. “And chicken-noodle ramen!” Sorrosa gave her the side-eye. “Ramen?” Then her face brightened. “Oh, you mean at Momofuku! You do love that.”
Babies are creatures of fashion. They may not know what fashion is, but they’re under our control, so we dress them as we like and feed them what we want. Their diets distill our anxieties. In the nineteenth century, this meant breast milk for a year or until the first molars appeared. In the nineteen-thirties, with the rise of “scientific motherhood,” it meant formula at first, then cereal at seven or eight months. It meant jars of overcooked carrots in the nineteen-fifties, in the heyday of industrial food, and homemade purées in the nineteen-seventies. Babies have been early adopters of organic, low-carb, gluten-free, vegan, and hypoallergenic diets. But if the latest trend is to feed them what they’ll eat as adults we may be betting on the wrong horse. Our own diets seem to change every five years. Who’s to say what their diet will be?
Fruits and vegetables are the best proof of that fickleness. Until the early twentieth century, they were a suspect food, the cultural historian Amy Bentley writes in “Inventing Baby Food.” Raw fruit was thought to cause fever, based on medical theories that dated back to the second-century Greek physician Galen of Pergamum. Vegetables were seen as sources of dysentery and diarrhea. (The real problem was the polluted water used to wash them.) When canned fruits and vegetables were sold, it was mostly in apothecaries, as laxatives. Only the discovery of “vitamines,” so named by the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk, in 1912, restored their reputation. “Nowadays it has become a race between physicians and nutritionists to see who dares to feed vegetables and solid food the earliest,” a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic wrote in 1954. “Vegetables have already been fed in the first month. We can now relax and see what it is all about.”
What it was about was business, abetted by bad medicine. Between 1921, when a restaurant manager named Harold Clapp made the first commercial baby food, in Rochester, New York, and 1960, the baby-food industry swelled into a quarter-billion-dollar business. In that same period, the average age at which babies were fed solid food dropped from seven or eight months to less than two. Formula and “patent foods” were better than breast milk, pediatricians and advertisers claimed. Formula never ran out, and baby food could be enriched to suit an infant’s needs. “For Baby’s Sake, Stay Out of the Kitchen!” a Gerber ad insisted in 1933. Science could provide what mothers could not.
They weren’t wrong. Babies of that era were often anemic, so they needed food fortified with iron. But that was because physicians insisted on clamping their umbilical cords immediately after birth. This kept blood from flowing from the placenta, depriving the baby of up to a third of its blood supply. Instead of nursing at their mother’s breast, babies were carted off and given formula, which kept the mother’s milk from coming in. It was a self-perpetuating cycle, and it kept spinning long after children grew up. Just as eating broccoli as a baby can teach you to love it as an adult, eating foods full of sugar, salt, starches, and preservatives can give you a taste for those things later on. It’s palate training on an industrial scale.
Babies can get fat when fed solid food too soon. Before the age of five months, they’re often too weak to refuse a meal, and adults, in their way, follow suit. “Industrializing the food supply was a win for most people,” Bentley told me. “It created safe, affordable, shelf-stable food that only rich people used to be able to eat. The problem is that, when so much food is available, the rules around it disintegrate. We can afford to eat like cavemen now or to be gluten-free. We can eat anything, anywhere, anytime, and the really delicious stuff is not that great for you. So now we aren’t dying of disease or hunger. We’re dying from consuming too much.”
The beaming faces on baby-food jars can hide quantities of unhealthy additives and worse, Ralph Nader told Congress in 1969. Seven years earlier, Rachel Carson had found that chemical fertilizers could work their way into the fruits and vegetables in baby food. A year after that, a study found that rats fed a baby-food diet developed hypertension. A series of contamination scandals followed: rodent excrement in dry baby food, cockroach fragments in Beech-Nut jars, chips of enamel paint and high levels of lead in many others. “One of the enduring characteristics of the food industry is its penchant to sell now and have someone else test later,” Nader said. Even dog food was more clearly labelled.
The backlash was furious but brief. If the scientific mothers of the nineteen-thirties wanted baby food untouched by human hands, the natural mothers of the seventies wanted only handmade food. After a half century of being pushed around by doctors and industry, they were ready to “take mothering back,” Bentley writes. Pressing a button on a blender was easier than forcing squash through a sieve, and a spate of new cookbooks offered advice for the trickier parts. “Peel the banana,” a recipe for “Banana” in “Making Your Own Baby Food” explained, “and mash it in a dish with a fork.”
A third of all baby food is now homemade, yet the baby-food industry is bigger than ever. Its new products have more vegetables and fewer additives. They are better labelled and more cleanly processed (though a recent study found trace quantities of heavy metals in nearly all the baby foods it tested, probably from pesticides and airborne pollutants). Gerber even has certified dietitians, lactation experts, and sleep coaches on call for free. But the true attraction is still convenience. Grinding your own carrots is a drag, even with a Baby Bullet blender, and your child may like the stuff in jars better anyway. “We are concerned with the technical task of mass feeding,” Gerber’s director of research, Robert A. Stewart, concluded in 1968, after dismissing the notion that the company’s use of sugar, salt, modified starch, and MSG was bad for babies. “The quickest way to fail in such mass feeding is to prepare a nutritional product in a form that the consumer will not eat.”
The taste-testing center for the Gerber Products Company is in a town I may not name, in a facility I’ve been forbidden to describe in detail. It’s a kind of baby black-ops site. “Do you know where you’re going?” my driver asked, when he arrived in a Lincoln town car. “I know the address. But do you know what the business is?” Gerber has been conducting taste tests since the nineteen-fifties. At first, the samples were sent to panelists by mail; then the tests were moved to a hotel in Fremont, Michigan, where the Gerber factory is situated. But the company worried that the results were skewed: many of the panelists owed their jobs to Gerber. So the tests were moved to this town which I shall not name, in a state that will likewise go unspecified. “They rented out a church basement for a while,” Sarah Smith-Simpson, a chipper, speed-talking principal scientist with Gerber’s Consumer Sensory Insight division, told me. “But they kept getting bumped out by funeral lunches.”
We were waiting for the babies to show up. Gerber runs about a hundred and fifty taste tests a year—since this facility opened, in 1996, babies have tried more than a hundred and fifty thousand individual servings. As we watched, nine mothers and one father filed in with babies on their hips. They took their places in cubicles furnished with high chairs and desktop computers. Then a cart full of white ramekins was wheeled in. Half the ramekins were filled with a pale-yellow purée; the other half had a purée that was closer to beige. Across from me, a moonfaced girl in a white stegosaurus jumper, identified only as Judge No. 7, grunted and kicked her legs. She turned and gave me a long, level stare, then blew a raspberry in my direction.
For the next fifteen minutes, she and the other babies would taste the two samples and their parents would rate their reactions on the computer. It was the Good Tastes Study without electrodes. Only instead of kale the babies were eating applesauce.
There aren’t many things that babies like better than applesauce. The two samples were subtly different—one was made from a single apple variety, the other from four—but they were equally sweet. And sugar is the great override button of infant taste. A few drops can calm a baby’s heart, release opiates in her brain, and settle her neural activity into a pleasurable pattern. Adults in taste tests reach a bliss point at about five teaspoons of sugar per cup of water. Babies prefer twice that amount. This test, in other words, was a no-brainer. It was like asking third graders if they want to go to Disneyland. Really? How about Harry Potter world? Judge No. 7 was already pounding her tray for more.
Gerber would have it no other way. The company has dominated the baby-food industry almost from the day, in 1927, when Dorothy Gerber, tired of mashing peas in her kitchen, asked her husband if he couldn’t do a better job of it at his canning factory. Between 1936 and 1946 alone, Gerber’s business grew by three thousand per cent. The company now claims roughly two-thirds of the baby-food market, and has the highest consumer loyalty of any brand in America. Fremont is nestled among apple orchards and vegetable fields near Lake Michigan, where the winds off the water cool the ripening fruit and help it “set sugar” in the summer. There is a baby-food festival every July, with crawling competitions and baby-food-eating contests, and a harvest festival in September. From the sky-blue water tower at the center of town to the image of the iconic Gerber baby in the lobby (clearly too young to be eating solid food), everything seems to belong to the same happy kingdom. When I visited, this fall, the Gerber employees I interviewed seemed incapable of a negative thought. They’d all fed Gerber products to their children or grandchildren, apparently, and always with impeccable results: every child healthy, every mealtime harmonious, every dinner sweet.
That is not most parents’ experience. In 2002, Gerber commissioned a survey of children’s eating habits in more than three thousand American households. The rate of childhood obesity had tripled in thirty years, and the survey confirmed the reasons in sobering detail. American babies were drinking soda as early as seven months. They ate a third too many calories, often from chips and fries. One in five ate no green vegetables daily, and one in three no fruit. The picture has improved a bit since then—babies now breast-feed a little longer—but the over-all pattern holds. American toddlers are more likely to eat dessert than plants.
Judge No. 7 had had enough. She signalled this fact by grabbing the spoon from her mother’s hand, slapping it to her forehead like a salute, and shouting “Baaaaa!” She’d eaten both dishes clean. “They like what they like,” Smith-Simpson said, after the parents had filed out of the room, sated babies back on their hips. We were standing in an observation room next door, looking out at the testing area through a two-way mirror. On Gerber’s old nine-point tasting scale (it has since switched to seven points), an eight or above was a home run—cause for a joyous announcement in Fremont. Vegetables averaged six and a half. “I don’t know that anyone likes Brussels sprouts or kale the first time,” Smith-Simpson said.
We know how to solve this problem. To learn to like a vegetable, children have to try it again and again, the psychologist Leann Birch found more than forty years ago. Sometimes it takes ten tries or more. But who wants to take that advice? Who wants to watch a baby toss a turnip across a room five times, much less ten? “Most of our research shows that parents will buy one container and give it three or four times, but they won’t buy it again,” Smith-Simpson told me. Good eating habits are the one skill that parents don’t mind their children giving up on, Saskia Sorrosa told me: “When they’re learning to ride a bike, they fall down a hundred times. Learning to read takes years. But when they’re learning to eat it’s ‘Oh, well, you didn’t like it the first time. Don’t bother.’ ”
Taste tests like Gerber’s miss the point, Sorrosa believes. Babies have no idea what’s good for them. If we want them to eat like adults, their food should taste good to adults. Yet Sorrosa can’t escape the logic of the market, either. The beet-fennel purée that she made for me was delicious, but she couldn’t risk it on a supermarket shelf. Beets are polarizing enough on their own, she said. “Add fennel and you have two things that people either love or hate.” It’s the basic conundrum of baby food: If it sells, it’s probably not best for babies. If it’s best for babies, it probably won’t sell.
Gerber doesn’t add sugar to most of its purées anymore, but it’s there just the same. The vegetables are almost always mixed with fruit—apple-blueberry-spinach, pear-zucchini-mango—or naturally sweet. “Production carrots like these grow bigger and set more sugar than the ones you get in a store,” Chris Falak, one of Gerber’s agricultural-team leaders, told me when we checked on a carrot crop outside Fremont. “They’ll get even sweeter after a week of sunny days and cool nights.” Of the more than five hundred baby foods with vegetables that Susan Johnson’s graduate students surveyed for the Good Tastes Study, nearly forty per cent listed fruit as a first ingredient; another quarter listed red and orange vegetables first. Only one per cent were mostly dark-green vegetables.
The American diet is like a broken bridge, Johnson says. It’s missing a span of simple, savory baby foods that can lead to healthy eating habits. “There’s nothing wrong with fruit. But fruit in my dark-green vegetables? Who thought that was a good idea?” Getting children across the bridge has never been easy, but in a culture that always plays to their weaknesses it can seem impossible. American toddlers now eat an average of seven teaspoons of sugar a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control—more than the recommended allowance for adults. Even baby food made with a single, unsweetened ingredient may taste nothing like the real thing. Babies raised on the pressure-cooked bananas in jars, one study found, were no more likely than others to enjoy the fresh fruit.
The observation room had a second one-way mirror, which looked into a small working kitchen. “We wanted to figure out what parents do at home—how they store the product, feed it, and prepare it,” Smith-Simpson said. Then she pushed a button and the room began to revolve like the grand-prize booth on a game show. A minivan was now parked where the kitchen used to be. “The car is the second most used environment,” she said.
If convenience to a housewife meant not having to cook baby food, convenience to a working parent means not having to serve it. Drivers can’t spoon-feed babies in a car seat, but they can hand them a tube of banana puffs and let them feed themselves. The baby-food industry, having lost some of its youngest customers—the recommended age for starting solid food has crept back up to six months—has expanded its audience on the other end. That has led to a proliferation of new “delivery systems,” including squirt bottles and squeeze tubes and bags of dehydrated veggie chips. Babies once weaned from jars at twelve months now sip from pouches well into their toddler years. Half of American children under three use them.
The idea, as usual, came from the military. The baby foods of the nineteen-fifties and sixties were often based on foods developed for American soldiers in the Second World War. Their powdered, concentrated, and prepackaged ingredients were easy to serve and close to imperishable. What could be better for baby? And today’s pouches are direct descendants of the Army’s foil-packed field rations. If you want to see the future of baby food, look in a foxhole.
“War fighters are a weapons system. We fuel them with food,” Stephen Moody, the director of the U.S. Army’s Combat Feeding Directorate, told me, when I visited his labs in Natick, Massachusetts. Square-built and direct of speech, with ears like miniature satellite dishes, Moody runs a team of eighty-seven chemists, biologists, food scientists, and support staff, developing field rations for all five branches of the military. “We are building the fuel for that war fire,” he said. This seemed a world away from babies eating applesauce. But Moody’s goals were a lot like Gerber’s: mobility, nutrition, taste. The tinned beef and soy biscuits of the Second World War have given way to a food court’s worth of flavors: buffalo chicken with brown rice, beef goulash with smoked paprika, mango-chipotle salmon. Toss a foil pack into a plastic sack with some salt water, add a tea bag of iron and magnesium powder, and the resulting chemical reaction will heat the meal to a hundred degrees in ten minutes. The pack can survive for three years at eighty degrees and withstand a thousand-foot drop from a C-17 cargo plane. Yet the chicken-burrito bowl I tasted was better than most fast food. Even the rice had kept its shape and bite, thanks to a special variety that had taken months to source.
“It’s only nutritious if they eat it,” Moody said, echoing the Gerber scientists of the nineteen-sixties. The soldiers in his field tests are a lot like the babies in taste tests. They get tired of eating the same dish. They refuse to eat some things even when hungry. They have limits to what they’ll do for a meal. “We always go to war with the perfect rations for the last war,” Moody said. “We are trying to get ahead of that.” Today’s military is focussed on counter-insurgency and mobile expeditionary squads—the equivalent of families in minivans, and similar concerns apply. How heavy is my backpack? What’s the most nutritious snack bar? What’s the simplest self-serve container? Three meals’ worth of standard field rations weigh just under five pounds. “First strike” rations for expeditionary forces weigh about three pounds. By microwaving foods in a vacuum or bombarding them with sound waves, Moody’s team has managed to reduce their weight and volume by an additional thirty per cent, while improving their flavor.
The logical end to all this is personalized nutrition: to each according to his body chemistry. Field rations vary from thirty-six hundred calories for ordinary soldiers to six thousand for Army rangers or Arctic ski patrols. “You wouldn’t want to put the same thing in a fighter jet that you put in a tank,” Moody said. The next step is to tailor the rations with nutrients for specific tasks: tyrosine for improved cognition, anthocyanins to repair muscles, calcium to thicken bones. (Millennial recruits are prone to stress fractures, Moody said, their frames having gone soft from too much screen time.) One day soon, soldiers will come back from a patrol, download data from their smartwatches, and 3-D-print pills of the nutrients they’ve lost. The baby version won’t be far behind.
The two fields come closest to converging in the cockpits of spy planes. U-2 pilots need to keep a pressurized helmet on at all times, so they can’t use a spoon or a fork. To keep them nourished for flights of up to twelve hours, the Combat Feeding Directorate has designed what look like oversized tubes of toothpaste. Stick the nozzle in a socket on the dashboard and it heats up like a cigarette lighter; stick it in your helmet and you can squeeze the hot food into your mouth. “When we first developed them, we did a lot of surveys,” Jill Bates, the directorate’s sensory coördinator, told me. She squeezed two lines of food onto a plate, one beige and the other cream-colored. “And we realized that the pilots wanted more texture and mouthfeel in there. The idea that they were having a meal—not just grown men eating puréed meat.”
The lines did look lumpier than expected, but I wasn’t prepared for the taste. I’d been imagining something like Plumpy’Nut, the nutritional paste given to starving children. Yet if I closed my eyes and forgot about the tube, my first taste was of apple pie—or a reasonable simulacrum, with bits of crust and real fruit. The second line tasted like a luxurious mac and cheese. It was made with real Gouda and truffle oil, Bates explained, and tiny beads of pastina pasta: “That’s the only kind that can squeeze through.” Like the other tube foods they’d developed—tortilla soup, Key-lime pie, polenta with cheese and bacon—these were dishes meant to do more than nourish. They were designed to trigger sense memories: to call to mind a kitchen in Iowa, as a pilot circled the Syrian desert at seventy thousand feet.
It’s a lesson Americans learn early and never seem to forget—that even a replica of a replica of a thing can soothe the heart. That a rough facsimile is often enough. It’s why we have Velveeta and margarine and orange juice from concentrate, protein shakes and Soylent drinks and superfood smoothies, made for runners and hikers or just people in a hurry. We’re all eating baby food now.
My children have long since grown up and can feed themselves. The strange things I forced on them as kids—goat kefir gets mentioned more often than I’d like—seem not to have stunted them too badly, or twisted their palates into unseemly shapes. Two of them even like beets. Still, after a few months in the crosscurrents of baby-food research, I couldn’t help having second thoughts. Did I feed them right? Are their dietary foibles my fault? Would some magic combination of Swiss chard and tempeh, grass-fed beef and organic dragon fruit have made them stronger?
Food should be a comfort to us, but it’s just as often a torture. And so, one morning this fall, hoping to clear my head of theories and counter-theories and get a hint of how other babies eat, I went to an African farm stand in Maine. Portland has been a haven for immigrants for more than forty years, beginning with Vietnamese and Cambodians in the nineteen-seventies. In the past ten years, a stream of refugees have arrived from Sudan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other countries, and a scattering of African markets have popped up to serve them. This stand was the brainchild of a group called Cultivating Community, which trained immigrant farmers to grow African produce in Maine. The Somali Bantu man who supplied the vegetables had leased an acre southeast of Lewiston, where he grew the crops these mothers missed most: amaranth greens, African corn, bitter eggplant.
By the time I arrived, a line of women had formed, most of them with babies in slings or strollers. Mariam, the good-natured Djiboutian who ran the stand, had told some of the mothers that I was coming, so a group of them stood to one side, eying me curiously, their hands on their hips or holding bags of greens. Four were from the Congo, one from Angola, and one from Somalia; all were dressed for going out, in elaborately plaited wigs and weaves and carefully applied makeup. We talked for a while about what they feed their babies, and how it differs from what their older children ate in Africa—they’d all immigrated in the past two years. Then I made plans to watch three of them cook for their children. “But only if you buy the ingredients!” a feisty Congolese woman named Rachel, with long copper braids, told me. “This takes time, you know!”
Rachel was twenty-nine and had studied mathematics in Kinshasa. When she fled the Congo, two years ago, after a government crackdown on dissidents and student protesters, she had an eight-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl, and she was pregnant. The only visas that she and her husband could get were for Ecuador, so they flew to Quito with their children, and made their way north, country by country, on foot and by bus, until they reached Laredo, Texas, and were granted temporary asylum. Now here they were in Maine, on an alien continent. The climate was so cold that it seemed frankly hostile, and the government was less and less inclined to let them stay. The least she could do was feed her children some food from home.
The next day, I picked Rachel up at her apartment, in north Portland, and we went shopping at a Sudanese market in the East End. While I wandered among sacks of fufu flour and canary beans, bottles of palm oil and sorrel syrup, Rachel hitched her daughter Soraya onto her back with a blanket. Soraya was a year old now, with bright eyes and a look of plump, irrepressible health. She watched as her mother threw a head of garlic and some yellow onions into her cart, then picked out an especially fearsome-looking dried catfish, black from smoke. Together with the amaranth leaves and eggplant she’d bought at the farm stand, they were the key ingredients in one of her favorite Congolese dishes, lenga-lenga.
“Even just this, with some fish and tomatoes, c’est formidable,” Rachel told me, back at her apartment. She was slicing a green pepper into a pan of onions and whole garlic cloves that were sautéing on the stove. She added peeled and cubed eggplant and some sliced leeks, then checked on the amaranth leaves boiling beside them, soft as lamb’s-quarters. Across the room, Soraya was slumped on the couch. She was watching a cartoon of a mother cradling her child, singing, “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.” Rachel glanced over at her, then mashed the softened eggplant against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon. She poured the sautéed vegetables into the boiling greens, dropped in two bouillon cubes and the smoked catfish, boned but not skinned, and cut in two whole tomatoes. Then she covered the pot and set it to simmer.
Feeding children isn’t molecular biology; it just feels like it sometimes. The perfect diet is a target that’s both moving and receding, its bull’s-eye shrinking in the distance. The Recommended Dietary Allowances for calories and nutrients, first issued by the National Research Council in 1941, were deemed too permissive in 1994. The latest versions, called Dietary Reference Intakes, also include adequate, average, and tolerable nutrient levels—three more numbers for parents to keep in mind. And every year seems to bring more supplements to obsess over: probiotics, phytonutrients, antioxidants, adaptogens. “We’ve got solids down to a science,” the Yumi baby-food Web site promises. If only.
No doubt there’s always something better for babies to eat. But they’re resilient creatures, for all their flab. Any good, varied diet will get them through, and the components aren’t hard to figure out: a dark-green vegetable, an orange vegetable, a carbohydrate, and a protein for iron and B vitamins. A single egg or half a cup of milk, two or three times a week, can be the difference between a healthy child and a malnourished one, Mutinta Hambayi, a senior nutritionist with the World Food Program, in Rome, told me. “One mother said to me, ‘When you have a mouse hole and there are seven babies in there, I can feed one to my child every day!’ They are called hunger foods, but they are not. They are foods that countries have adapted to eating.” In Zambia, where Hambayi grew up, people eat caterpillars; in Kenya, termites; in Uganda, flying ants; in Cambodia, spiders. “People find it disgusting, but I’m from a landlocked country,” Hambayi said. “I had the same reaction when I saw prawns.”
Babies do have some sense of what’s good for them, it turns out. “Self-weaned” infants, who dispense with purées and just gnaw on their parents’ food, tend to be slimmer and healthier than those raised on baby food. But only if their parents eat healthy meals themselves. And there’s the catch. The average American’s diet is so abysmal, Amy Bentley told me, that most babies are better off eating commercial baby food: “They’ll get more and a greater variety of fruits and vegetables than those fed the family meal.” To learn to feed our children, we need to learn to feed ourselves.
Rachel’s lenga-lenga was like no baby food I’d ever seen. It was full of onions and garlic and bitter green pepper. It had mashed eggplant and leeks that could give a baby gas. It was salty from the bouillon—the rest of the family would be eating it, too—and far from sweet. By the time it was done cooking, it was a thick green porridge, pungent with smoked fish and sulfurous plants. It made kale look like Christmas candy. And yet, when Rachel brought a bowl of it over to Soraya on the couch, she bounced up and down and clapped her hands.
“With really young babies, it’s not about liking or not liking,” Susan Johnson had told me. “If they want to eat, they’ll eat.” That’s the most striking finding of the Good Tastes Study. In video after video, the babies grimace or purse their lips after the first taste of kale. But when offered a second spoonful, they eat it anyway. “It’s amazing that they do, but they do,” Johnson said. “There seems to be this window of opportunity between six and nine months—maybe even twelve months—where they’re just interested in food. And that predisposes them to healthy eating. They’re like baby birds. It doesn’t even matter if they like it. They just try it.”
Soraya coughed a little and glanced at the TV. She shook her head and clutched at an empty Cheetos bag on the couch. The spoon was floating toward her now, filled with that smelly, familiar stuff from the bowl. She looked up at her mother with wide, inscrutable eyes, and slowly opened her mouth.