Note: This post is part of an ongoing series in which we try to answer questions about the science behind food – from farm to fork. If you have a food-related question, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why is the conventional wisdom in the West to start babies out on bland, unseasoned, single foods, as opposed to feeding them seasoned foods that are mixed together in a dish?
That’s one of the first questions that I got when I recently asked friends what they wanted to know about food.
To get an answer, I contacted Suzie Goodell, an assistant professor of nutrition at NC State who does research on childhood nutrition and public health.
Here’s what she had to say:
Healthcare providers following traditional Western medicine recommend parents introduce unseasoned single foods to babies for a couple reasons.
First, we do not recommend seasonings because many of our seasonings mix sodium with other flavorings. A baby’s kidneys are still developing, and consuming too much sodium could tax the baby’s kidneys and – in the worst case scenario – cause renal failure.
Second, we recommend initially providing one new food at a time (only serving one new food for 3-5 days) in order to help determine whether a baby has food allergies and intolerances. Younger children are at greater risk for developing intolerances and allergies (which they often outgrow in time).
For example, if a baby eats apples for 3-5 days and shows no signs of an allergic reaction, then a new food can be introduced (let’s say pears). The baby can then eat apples and pears together or apples or pears.
As children are exposed to more foods, new flavor combinations are available. I would recommend this same principle for introducing seasonings (no-sodium herbs and spices), because children can have intolerances and allergies to them too. However, once all the ingredients in the dish are deemed tolerable, there is no reason why you can’t serve a seasoned mixed dish…but we still caution against the over-consumption of sodium.
While I am not familiar with all of the practices in other countries, I do know that many in European countries follow the same model we use in the United States.
In developing countries, children are often exclusively breastfed for much longer periods of time than in the U.S., due to the scarcity of food compared to the supply of breast milk and the risk of food-borne illnesses.
For example, children in developing countries may not start eating complementary foods/solid foods until they are one year old, whereas the typical recommendation in the U.S. is not to start feeding a baby complementary food before six months (though many start well before that). As a result, when children in developing countries are introduced to solid foods, their gut may be more apt to handle the food (though that’s speculation).
That said, I’m not sure that anyone has conducted scientific studies and published results on the West’s approach to baby food. However, clinical experiences with those who follow the 3-5 day principle versus those who do not would indicate that there is benefit to a purposeful introduction of new foods one at a time.