Gerber: A Broken Promise?

Several days ago Seth Godin’s blog caught my attention. He had a post about marketing and promises that said:

Marketing is about making promises and then keeping them. The marketer comes to us and makes a promise. If we accept the promise, a sale is made.

If we seduce ourselves into accepting small promises, we let everyone down…

The big promises of transparency and care, of design and passion, of commitment and stewardship–we ought to be demanding more of this.

We get what we settle for.

After spending the past couple weeks working on my series, Baby’s First Encounter with Big Food, I couldn’t agree more. Why? Because I believe Big Food has broken some sacred promises. While they may make and keep some smaller promises, they’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. And although many companies are guilty of this in the baby aisle, one company in particular stands out–Nestlé, the owner of the Gerber baby brand.

The iconic Gerber logo featuring the Gerber baby

The Gerber brand was established in the 1920’s and has been a trusted friend of parents for decades. Originally launched with only five items (peas, prunes, carrots, spinach and beef vegetable soup), Gerber’s lineup has diversified and become the dominant US baby food brand.

Over the years the Gerber brand has built a remarkable level of trust that has led to almost instinctual purchases by parents. And since purchasing Gerber in 2007 Nestlé has continued to invest in deepening that commitment through ads like this one:

Featuring an adorable slideshow of  babies, Gerber connects with parents by saying:

Say hello to the Gerber generation. They have some BIG news to share. The nutrition children get in the first 5 years can affect their health forever. Think about that. Together we can create a healthier generation. And it all starts with you. [Baby coos] Welcome to the Gerber generation.

Pretty inspiring words. I know as a parent I want to create a healthier generation. But is Gerber living up to this big promise?

In Part III of this series I take a look at several products Gerber has developed for toddlers and preschoolers. As we examine them, think about the “big promises” Gerber has made. Has it been transparent about what’s in its food? Furthermore, has it demonstrated commitment and stewardship that is deserving of our trust?

 

Everyone loves fruit smoothies, right? So isn’t it time we start serving them to toddlers? Ummm, probably not. I’m guessing most parents by now have heard their pediatrician warn against excessive sugar consumption. So what does Gerber do in its fruit & yogurt lineup? It packs them full of sugars. These little 120g drinks pack 16g of sugars–that’s more sugars per fluid ounce than Nestlé’s Nesquik bottled chocolate drinks. If that weren’t enough to scare you, Gerber uses GMO ingredients, milk from cows that are treated with growth hormones, as well as some “natural” flavorings which may not be quite so natural. Of course, none of these disturbing facts are mentioned by Gerber. I wonder why?

Cereal bars have become such a popular item with adults that Gerber has decided your preschooler should eat them too. But are Gerber’s Cereal Twists truly healthy? With each 20g bar containing over a third of its weight in sugars and 0g of dietary fiber, it’s hard to understand Gerber’s logic. When you look deeper, the story only gets worse with ingredients that contains GMOs, dairy from cows treated with growth hormones, and more so-called “natural” flavorings. So how are they healthy? They’ve been fortified them with a variety of vitamins and minerals and claim “nutrition for healthy growth and natural immune support.” But really, shouldn’t your preschooler be getting those vitamins from a nutritious diet and a good multivitamin instead of a sugary cereal bar? If so, has Gerber violated our trust?

At last, a product every preschooler needs … juice treats. With product claims like specially made for preschoolers, excellent source of Vitamin C, made with real fruit juice, and no artificial flavors, some might think these are actually healthy. Unfortunately, they’d be wrong.

Gerber’s juice treats are a scary assault on preschoolers. Just like “fruit snacks” that are targeted at older kids, Gerber’s juice treats are simply candy that pretends to be healthy. Made with fruit juice, lots of sugar, carrageenan (a possible carcinogen), a variety of GMOs, “natural” flavorings, and hydrogenated oils (aka trans fats), this snack is a nutritional train wreck. I’m sorry, Gerber, but exactly why do preschool-age kids need sugar and empty calories? With more and more studies showing sugar is addictive, why do we even want to expose our little ones to these types of foods?

So what do you think? Has Gerber earned our trust? Have they kept their “big promises” of transparency, passion, commitment and stewardship? Or have they sold out and become one more Big Food brand focused on profits? I know what I think, but I’d love to hear your comments below.

As always, thanks for visiting my blog. If you haven’t had a chance to check out my novel, Fat Profits, you can download your FREE chapter here. With the holidays just around the corner, it might be the perfect gift idea that gets your friends and family members asking, “do I really know what’s in my food?”

Finally, if you’re new to my blog and you’d like to learn more about the tricks, traps, and tools Big Food uses to get people eating more processed food, please subscribe for the latest updates.

 

If you’re interested in reading other posts in this series, here are the links:

Part I:  Baby’s First Encounter with Big Food

Part II:  Baby’s First Snack Foods

 

 

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12 thoughts on “Gerber: A Broken Promise?

  1. Thanks Bruce. I am not a parent but the thought of those millions of people feeding Gerber and other processed foods to their babies is troubling and frustrating. It would seem that we still have a long row to hoe before the vast majority of Americans awaken from their advertising induced coma. The Calif. propostion 37 experiment shows us that most people have little to no knowledge about the system they are hooked into, still. It is easy to visualize the larger human culture as being like the naked and asleep batteries in the Matrix. But as people of consciousness we must believe in a different reality, and be able to visualize it more strongly, in full definition and description. We know what it looks like, and so does everyone else because that is what the ads show them. We just need the lie to be the truth. So how to visualize the wakening itself, where the majority would no longer take anything at face value, and do not accept ads as information I thank you, and my heart is shaking its little pom pons for you to continue to crystalize this vision.

  2. I just stumbled onto your blog today after reading your interview on the “100 Real Days of Food” blog. Holy cow is this good stuff. Society definitely won’t sleep better at night if they know too much about what’s in their food-like substances, especially when it comes to baby stuff.

    I have a quick question that’s only tangentially related to this particular blog post topic, but given how much we can trust the health claims advertised on the packaging of these products, are the ingredient list items regulated or somehow verified or is it taken on faith that food companies always truthfully list their ingredients? I guess I’ve just never seen an instance publicized where a company was caught deceptively listing their ingredients on the nutrition label.

    • I don’t think they have to add everything, because from what I understand, in some cases, they list an “ingredient” that is actually made up of other things. For example, a package might list “soy sauce” as an ingredient and not divulge what that soy sauce itself was made up of. So things like MSG sometimes are really hard to know for sure.

  3. I need to share this information with my mom. She is constantly sending me “treats” from the US for my 16 month old. We practiced baby-led weaning which basically meant we skipped the puree stage of weaning and instead introduced her to whole foods that she could feed herself. Like a finger of roasted sweet potato or her favourite steamed peas. But my mom has struggled with this concept and constantly recommends some of the Gerber foods to us instead. We are going to visit her for Christmas and I am worried she is going to stock up on these.

    • Laura:

      Glad you are enjoying my blog, and that it’s been helpful. Dealing with parents can be challenging. So much has changed in our food supply since they raised us. I think sometimes they feel threatened or like what they did wasn’t good enough. Reassuring them and gently showing them our concerns and the reasons for why we eat real food can be helpful, but old allegiances to brands like Gerber can be tough to break.

      Best of luck and keep the comments/questions coming. Thanks!

      Bruce

  4. I am happy to have found your blog through the interview with 100 Days of Real Food and I look forward to digging around more. Just this week I experienced bad food affect a preschooler in a way I have never seen before. I work at a preschool and one of the children in my class always brings a lunch filled with whole foods – carrots, hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, berries, etc. Ate age 2, she always happily eats all of this. I never see her lunch contain sugar-laden or processed foods.

    This past week as a Thanksgiving treat our preschool kids were given a small ice cream treat. This whole food child who is normally quiet and reserved became extremely talkative, energetic and inattentive. The difference in her was more than obvious to anyone who has been around her longer than 5 minutes. It reminded me of someone who had too much alcohol to drink – in this case though the drug was sugar.

    Thank you for bringing attention to what is in the foods that are being marketed to our children and to us. I look forward to hearing/reading more of the information you have.

  5. SO MUCH FOR THE MYTHS
    CONSIDER THE FACTS ON CARRAGEENAN FOR A CHANGE

    Q. What is Carrageenan??

    A. Carrageenan is a naturally-occurring seaweed extract. It is widely used in foods and non-foods to improve texture and stability. Common uses include meat and poultry, dairy products, canned pet food, cosmetics and toothpaste.
    Q. Why the controversy?
    A. Self-appointed consumer watchdogs have produced numerous web pages filled with words condemning carrageenan as an unsafe food additive for human consumption. However, in 70+ years of carrageenan being used in processed foods, not a single substantiated claim of an acute or chronic disease has been reported as arising from carrageenan consumption. On a more science-based footing, food regulatory agencies in the US, the EU, and in the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) repeatedly review and continue to approve carrageenan as a safe food additive.
    Q. What has led up to this misrepresentation of the safety of an important food stabilizer, gelling agent and thickener?
    A. It clearly has to be attributed to the research of Dr. Joanne Tobacman, an Associate Prof at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She and a group of molecular biologists have accused carrageenan of being a potential inflammatory agent as a conclusion from laboratory experiments with cells of the digestive tract. It requires a lot of unproven assumptions to even suggest that consumption of carrageenan in the human diet causes inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract. The objectivity of the Chicago research is also flawed by the fact that Dr Tobacman has tried to have carrageenan declared an unsafe food additive on weak technical arguments that she broadcast widely a decade before the University of Chicago research began.

    Q. What brings poligeenan into a discussion of carrageenan?
    A. Poligeenan (“degraded carrageenan” in pre-1988 scientific and regulatory publications) is a possible carcinogen to humans; carrageenan is not. The only relationship between carrageenan and poligeenan is that the former is the starting material to make the latter. Poligeenan is not a component of carrageenan and cannot be produced in the digestive tract from carrageenan-containing foods.
    Q. What are the differences between poligeenan and carrageenan?
    A. The production process for poligeenan requires treating carrageenan with strong acid at high temp (about that of boiling water) for 6 hours or more. These severe processing conditions convert the long chains of carrageenan to much shorter ones: ten to one hundred times shorter. In scientific terms the molecular weight of poligeenan is 10,000 to 20,000; whereas that of carrageenan is 200,000 to 800,000. Concern has been raised about the amount of material in carrageenan with molecular weight less than 50,000. The actual amount (well under 1%) cannot even be detected accurately with current technology. Certainly it presents no threat to human health.
    Q. What is the importance of these molecular weight differences?
    A. Poligeenan contains a fraction of material low enough in molecular weight that it can penetrate the walls of the digestive tract and enter the blood stream. The molecular weight of carrageenan is high enough that this penetration is impossible. Animal feeding studies starting in the 1960s have demonstrated that once the low molecular weight fraction of poligeenan enters the blood stream in large enough amounts, pre-cancerous lesions begin to form. These lesions are not observed in animals fed with a food containing carrageenan.

    Q. Does carrageenan get absorbed in the digestive track?
    A. Carrageenan passes through the digestive system intact, much like food fiber. In fact, carrageenan is a combination of soluble and insoluble nutritional fiber, though its use level in foods is so low as not to be a significant source of fiber in the diet.
    Summary
    Carrageenan has been proven completely safe for consumption. Poligeenan is not a component of carrageenan.
    Closing Remarks
    The consumer watchdogs with their blogs and websites would do far more service to consumers by researching their sources and present only what can be substantiated by good science. Unfortunately we are in an era of media frenzy that rewards controversy.
    Additional information available:
    On June 11th, 2008, Dr. Joanne Tobacman petitioned the FDA to revoke the current regulations permitting use of carrageenan as a food additive.
    On June 11th, 2012 the FDA denied her petition, categorically addressing and ultimately dismissing all of her claims; their rebuttal supported by the results of several in-depth, scientific studies.
    If you would like to read the full petition and FDA response, they can be accessed at http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;rpp=25;po=0;s=FDA-2008-P-0347

    • Thank you for your comment. While you seem to have disdain for bloggers and a complete, unequivocal trust in the FDA, I will try to respond briefly to your “Q&A” essay.

      First, I described carrageenan as a possible carcinogen. I stand by that assessment.

      Second, your assertion that the World Health Organization completely agrees with the use of carrageenan as a food additive in all cases is simply incorrect and uninformed. Here is a link to where the WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives advises against the use of carrageenan in infant formulas. Although the items in this post are not infant formulas, they are products intended for toddlers, and I think many parents would like to at least be informed about the issue.

      Finally, the world of food is not black and white. I believe sharing more information about the food we eat is a good thing. I know from firsthand experience that the manufacturers of our food are concerned about profits, not the long-term health of consumers. That means we all need to be much more wary consumers.

      Regards,

      Bruce

  6. I came across your blog regarding Gerber foods while doing a Google search as to why there’s so much in what was once a very well known, trusted brand of food for infants and toddlers. I, myself, grew up on Gerber foods, so when I had my baby, I thought why not? It was most demanded and actually healthy when I was young.

    Then when my daughter actually started eating solids and demanding more food, I realized the best thing for her was to make her food myself. We still kept Gerber products on hand, in case of an emergency. Well, that decision has been reconsidered, especially due to a recent night where she would just not settle down after eating Gerber’s Puff Cereal pieces. She refused to eat her butternut squash I made for her. After seeing how difficult it was for her to settle down for the night, I checked all the Gerber products we have in the house, and to my surprise, they all contained more than 1g of sugar. The little 2nd foods we have on hand have sugar, as well. I was astonished to read that there was sugar included in her little turkey and rice mix.

    Needless to say, we are not purchasing anymore Gerber products. In case of an emergency (such as hurricane, for example, as we are in hurricane season), we will be seeking other alternatives that are more nutritious for her.

    Thank you for sharing this information. It made the decision a lot easier when it comes to our children’s food. We just have to be more proactive in her nutritional habits.

  7. Bruce,
    When you talk about the sugar in food, do you mean fructose, high fructose corn syrup or are you talking sugar from sugar cane?
    Very interesting information here.

    • Thanks for your comment, Judy. These products for the most part list “sugar” on their labels. Regardless, all types of sugars including high fructose corn syrup, fructose, and cane sugar as well as products sweetened with fruit juices should be avoided by toddlers and kids of all ages. All of these sugars are sources of empty calories, and they end up training our taste buds to crave sweet foods. Don’t just walk away, RUN from these types of foods with your kids!