Baby’s First Snack Foods

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Part II of the series Baby’s First Encounter with Big Food

Snacking has become a national pastime. The NPD Group, a leading research organization hired by most Big Food companies, recently reported that “one out of every five eating occasions is a snack.” Now that statistic might not be so alarming if the snacks were healthy. Unfortunately, more often than not these snacks aren’t real food. Instead they’re fat-dripping, salt-filled, GMO-laced fake food that has been highly processed. But after researching Part I of my series, Baby’s First Encounter with Big Food, I got curious. When does junk food snacking start? As I ventured back into the infant and toddler aisle of my local grocery story, I discovered it starts far too young.

“Pincer” Grasp

It all begins innocently enough. Around 6 to 12 months, children start developing “pincer” grasp–the ability to pick up things with their thumbs and index fingers. For millennium, children used this emerging skill to start “feeding themselves” real foods like small morsels of fruits or vegetables. But over the past 50 years, processed foods have been slowly squeezing out simple, real foods from baby’s high chair.

One of the first Big Food brands to market baby “finger foods” to Moms was General Mills’ Cheerios. With 1g of sugar and 2g of dietary fiber (in a 3/4 cup serving) it’s arguably one of the healthier choices among processed cereals. But with added salt and some genetically modified ingredients, these oat-based “Os” aren’t as simple as they claim to be. For decades, however, Cheerios remained a relatively unchallenged favorite in this first finger food world. However during the past 10 years one global food behemoth has decided to cash in on baby snacking, and in turn has set up millions of children for a lifelong snack addiction.

Yes, that company is none other than Nestlé, the world’s largest food company and owner of the Gerber brand. Nestlé’s self-ascribed approach for food items aimed at young children is “Start Healthy Stay Healthy.” While this sentiment sounds wonderful, I’d argue actions speak louder than words. So in today’s post I’ll take a closer look at Nestlé’s products targeted at a segment they call “crawlers.” Then in Part III of Baby’s First Encounter with Big Food, I’ll examine Nestlé’s line-up for toddlers and pre-schoolers.

Nestlé defines crawlers as children who crawl with their stomach on the floor and are beginning to self-feed with their fingers. For most babies these developmental milestones are happening around 6-8 months old. Remarkably, Nestlé also claims that as a crawler “grows into toddlerhood, about 25% of his calories will come from snacks.” After looking at Nestlé’s snack line-up, I’m seriously frightened.

Although Gerber Graduate Puffs are fairly similar to Cheerios (both contain GMOs and have 1g added sugar), Gerber’s version is definitely more processed by virtue of using some refined grains, having no fiber, and adding “natural” flavors. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that natural flavors are hardly what you imagine them to be. Instead, they are usually made up of complex compounds that are designed by “flavor house” companies that literally create flavorings as a way to get you “addicted” to food [If you want to learn more about this, visit my post entitled, Confessions of a Former Coke "Addict"].

So where do I net out on Gerber Graduates Puffs? All-in-all, I wouldn’t choose to feed my “crawler” this food.

Nestlé  steps up their infant snacking game with Gerber Graduates “yogurt melts.” Although the package states “nutrition specially made for your child,” I’m very puzzled how they can defend this claim since each 7g serving packs 4g of sugar. Hmmm… I’m no math major but this stuff is more than 50% sugars. To top things off, the so-called yogurt is sourced from cows treated with growth hormones (rBGH), and Nestlé has decided to add some “natural” flavors for good measure. Let’s face it, Nestlé, this is nothing more than baby candy.

If the fact that Nestlé is serving up candy to crawlers isn’t appalling enough, take a look at Gerber’s lil’ crunchers. OMG, I can’t believe this–Nestlé is selling cheese puffs to infants with a front label claim “supports HEALTHY GROWTH & development.” Hello? This is a cheese puff made with with highly processed ingredients, 2g of fat (almost 30% by weight), GMOs, preservatives, dairy sourced from cows treated with rBGH, lots of salt, and “natural” flavors. Of course, if salty isn’t your baby’s thing, you can go the pre-sweetened snack route with Maple or Apple flavored Wagon Wheels.

How does this make me feel? I’m sorry, but in my 15+ years of food marketing experience, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more inappropriate lineup. When you pair “snacks” like these with research that suggests “junk food is as addictive as heroin,” you’re literally putting six month old crawlers on a course towards a lifelong struggle with food. Shame on you Nestlé. The sad thing is, Nestlé’s junk food approach to children’s nutrition doesn’t end there. So stay-tuned for Part III of Baby’s First Encounter with Big Food.

As always, thanks for visiting my blog. If you haven’t had a chance to check out my book, Fat Profits, you can download your FREE chapter here. With the holidays just around the corner, Fat Profits may be the perfect gift idea–an entertaining thriller that also gets people asking the question, “do I really know what’s in my food.”

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12 comments… add one

  • Ruth November 14, 2012, 9:39 am

    Why would anyone buy this stuff for their kids? But, when I see some of the stuff parents and grandparents feed babies and small children, I guess it is not surprising. Too many people figure if the government says it’s OK, it must be.

    • Bruce Bradley November 14, 2012, 10:10 am

      You’re right, Ruth. When I worked at Big Food companies, I’d sit in countless focus groups watching consumers talk about food. You’d hear things like, “well if they’re allowed to claim it on the package, it must be true” or “our government regulates food to make sure its safe and healthy.” The reality is our government has become a puppet of the food industry and we can’t trust what the food industry puts in front of us. Sharing that message with more and more consumers by providing examples like the ones above is one of the ways I’m trying to make a difference.

      Thanks for reading my blog and for your comment!


  • Laura November 14, 2012, 2:01 pm

    What is frustrating about snacks for babies is that there is no reason on earth it needs to be processed foods. What happened to fruit? What happened to veggie sticks? I am proud to say my 16 month old only has things like fruit, veggies sticks (carrots being her favourite) and the occasional piece of toast if she is really hungry for a snack.

  • Maureen November 20, 2012, 2:27 pm

    I’m loving this blog series. Will you be researching the instant baby cereals? I have a dog in this fight – my business menu actually has whole grain baby food, and I keep as much info as possible for the inevitable emails, demo questions, etc. The only real info I could ascertain was on the package – an 18 month shelf life. I have shoes that will wear out sooner. Most claim to be an organic grain, but I believe they’ve cooked the life out of it in order to make instant flakes. Just wondering.

    • Laura November 20, 2012, 2:36 pm

      I would be curious to hear more about instant baby cereal as well. If it is anything like the process that they put things like instant rice through then there is practically no nutritional value left and they have to add it back. I know my doctor told me that I might as well give my daughter wall paper paste. So I would be curious to hear what others have to say on the topic.

      • Jenny November 21, 2012, 1:44 pm

        I too would love to know more about baby cereal. I have used Earth’s Best Organic whole grain cereals (oatmeal and multi grain…stopped using rice after the whole aresenic thing came out). Yikes! I am concerned after reading the “paper waste” comment!

    • Bruce Bradley November 22, 2012, 8:37 am

      Thanks Maureen.

      To be honest, originally I was only planning one post on baby foods. I thought it’d be pretty simple … I’d find some GMOs and some other kinda processed/junky stuff. What I found alarmed me so, that it became a series of three posts. While I don’t have plans to look into baby cereals, I might given your comment and several others that have come in.



  • Stephanie November 23, 2012, 10:21 pm

    I’d love to hear about baby cereals too- I have felt like I could trust Earth’s Best, but I’m not so sure now!

  • Karen H. November 26, 2012, 7:37 pm

    I am the mother of 9 children and we have been, in general, on a whole foods diet. I never wanted my children to develop a taste for fake food. But I have given all these products to my babies! They are easy, not messy and they can feed themselves. After reading this, no more! Though I am going to find it a challenge to replace them.

  • Karen January 3, 2013, 11:08 pm

    Most of these items were introduced long after my kids were part of the target group. I did give them the little round cereal as a finger food before the “multigrain” version was introduced. I remember thinking the multigrain would be a great idea, and then how disappointed I was when I discovered they were highly sweetened, but still described as healthy. That’s when I stopped being a customer. It was also the beginning of a new way of looking at food.

    So I have to say a very hearty “Thanks, General Mills! You opened my eyes to Big Food deception – and I have never looked back.” There are now dozens and dozens of brand name ‘food’ items that will never again see the inside of my home. We are much healthier and happier for it. Multigrain Cheerios was the first thing I vowed we would never consume – they started it all.

  • Ni August 6, 2013, 3:13 pm

    Im 17 and I love gerber yogurt melt. The strawbery one taste the best! If you’re an adult, These can be great alternative to bad snacking. It is better then eating veggetable that taste bleehk.
    One bag of those yogurt melt contains 100 calories but one bag last me about 3 days. 1 small bad of potato chips contain 150 calories and last you 3-5 minutes.

  • Amy October 12, 2013, 7:35 am

    It’s a scary list! The amount of GMOs is terrifying!
    With my 7month old of course next to breast feeding purées, of various fruits & veggies.
    But I struggle with on the go foods for the 7 month old( we have a 2.5 year old) so we are busy.
    Any suggestions??


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  • About Me:

    Bruce Bradley

    Bruce Bradley

    I'm a father, food advocate, consultant, and author.

    Bruce is a former processed food exec turned food advocate, blogger, and author.

    Before his food advocacy work, Bruce worked for over fifteen years as a marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco. As one of the only former processed food marketers actively speaking out about concerns over the food we eat, the media often seeks Bruce out for his honest perspective. His 2011 interview, Confessions of a former Big Food Executive, was one of Grist online's Top 10 clicked stories for 2011.

    Bruce now writes, performs speaking engagements, and provides business strategy and marketing consultant services to help ethical, sustainable businesses reach their potential.

    Bruce graduated with an MBA from Duke University and a B.A. from Davidson College. Born and raised in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, he now lives in Minneapolis, MN with his son and their dog, Katie.

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