Why Parents Are Told To Give Babies Unseasoned Food – One Type of Food at a Time

05.02.2014 |

Photo credit: Ravedave, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ravedave, via Wikimedia Commons

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 matt_shipman@ncsu.edu.

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.

3 Responses to “Why Parents Are Told To Give Babies Unseasoned Food – One Type of Food at a Time”

  1. Jeff Allen says:

    Introducing lots of things makes it easier to avoid a picky eater later. But not negotiating also helps.

    As soon as possible, we instituted a policy of “this is what’s for dinner, take it or leave it”. Setting a positive tone of “we’re all eating this, it’s what’s for dinner” meant we didn’t get lost into negotiating about eating this or that. If they don’t eat, there’s still the evening bottle of milk. And anyway, no child ever starved from missing one dinner. If they didn’t eat normally the next day, that would be a different story, and reason to watch carefully and decide what to do.

    I see too many people negotiating with their kids. They are not hostage takers, and you are not an FBI “food negotiation expert”. It is a lot easier to keep your patience and happy house with a simple consistent positive message like “Yumm! It’s what’s for dinner!”


  2. mr sensible says:

    This goes to show both how insulated we are in the US from how other cultures (even other western cultures) raise their children. It also demonstrates how nutritionists present as fact things that are really only opinion. In Germany,for example, infants as young as four months old are given baby food that contains multiple different ingredients (e.g., parsnips, potato and veal; see http://thriftytravelmama.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/baby-food-in-germany-the-jar-options/). No one worries about carefully introducing food one item at a time. The author should avoid talking about “the West” when he is really only talking about the US.

  3. […] have to start with rice cereal? Why do we only feed babies unseasoned food? Matt Shipman gets some interesting answers from a NC State nutrition professor. Turns out: The big issue with seasoning is sodium. Babies can’t process much of it and a lot […]

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