“The fastest rate of growth is in utero, and I think most mothers understand they have some responsibility there in terms of their own nutrition and their own health and physical activity to make sure that environment” supports their child’s early development, Robert Murray, a professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University.
However, he added, “we forget sometimes the fact that the organs are not fully developed [when a baby is first born] and they are still in the process of sampling the environment through the air we breathe and the things we swallow.”
What children consume during those first few years will have a significant impact on the development of the immune system, brain and gut – all of which are connected, he added.
Industry should provide more education and engagement
Given how pivotal early development is, Murray says parents need to understand the role that nutrition plays not just in terms of calories but also learning about the world at large.
Meal time “becomes a great time for a baby to sit down face to face and sell the baby on those foods. Let them play with it and talk about and go back and forth,” he explained. “It is not just about getting calories in – it really is about that experience, and that is the mission for parenting.”
He noted that while the food and beverage industry has “done a good job” innovating baby and children’s products around taste, value and convenience, they can still do more – especially when it comes to creating engagement.
For example, he lauded pouches for the convenience they offer harried parents, and noted that industry is making more and better finger foods that incorporate all five food groups. He also complimented industry around changes in processing to provide fresher more nutrient dense products for children as well as efforts to reduce less desirable nutrients such as sugar, salt and fat.
Frame products as part of a dietary pattern rather than demonize specific nutrients
At the same time that industry has made strides, he encourages manufacturers not to get too caught up in individual nutrients and instead provide products that fit into and educate parents about larger dietary patterns.
“We have spent 75 years now hocking individual nutrients and vilifying individual nutrients and talking about proteins and carbs and you know getting people down into the weeds where they don’t need to be. And the idea of a dietary pattern is to come back and talk about the way you feed your child and family,” and using sugar or salt or fat as a means of promoting the taste of nutrient dense options, he explained.
“I’ve always said if a mother sprinkles powdered sugar on strawberries to get the child to eat five instead of three, that is a good parenting decision. Or if dad pours syrup on oatmeal, that a is a good parenting decision because it is the oatmeal that is important, not the syrup,” he said.
With that in mind, he challenged manufacturers to help move consumers to think about dietary patterns and improving the overall quality of every meal to help move “America on the right track.”
He also outlined other opportunities, and challenges for the baby food segment in an episode of FoodNavigator-USA's Soup-To-Nuts Podcast.