Is homemade baby food healthier for infants?

(Reuters Health) - Babies who get homemade food may learn to like a wider variety of food types and be leaner than infants who eat store-bought products, a recent study suggests.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and then advises mothers to keep nursing while starting to introduce solid foods.

For the current study, researchers examined whether the source of food – homemade or commercial - influences variety, infant growth and weight. They found babies who only ate homemade foods had more diverse diets earlier in life and lower body fat mass when they were 1 year and 3 years old.

“The results could have implications for preventing obesity and chronic diseases associated with poor food choices,” said lead study author Dr. Elise Mok of the Research Institute at McGill University Health Centre and the Montreal Children’s Hospital.

“Given that food preferences begin early in life, are likely to persist and are difficult to change in adulthood, providing appropriate food choices during the complementary feeding period is of importance to facilitate food acceptance and ensure healthy growth and development,” Mok added by email.

WHO guidelines urge parents to feed babies a varied diet including meat, poultry, fish and eggs along with a range of fruits and vegetables starting at age 6 months.

Previous research suggests that commercially produced baby food can contain high amounts of sodium and sugar and be of a consistent texture and appearance that may limit children’s acceptance of new foods with different textures, researchers write in the International Journal of Obesity.

Homemade foods, by contrast, can provide a broader range of flavors and textures that might encourage children to eat a wider variety of things as they get older, the authors note.

For the current study, researchers examined dietary data on 65 infants and assessments of body fat from exams when infants were 6, 9, 12 and 36 months old.

By 9 months of age, 14 babies, or 22 percent, had exclusively received homemade food and another 14 infants ate only commercially produced food. Most babies got a combination of both types of food.

There weren’t any differences in the babies’ lengths or how much they weighed for their age based on what the infants ate. Calorie and nutrient intakes also didn’t differ by group over time.

However, when researchers scored babies’ diets based on how many of seven different food groups they consumed, the infants getting only homemade food achieved scores almost a full point higher than babies getting only store-bought foods.

At one year of age, babies who ate only homemade food had a lower percentage of body fat than the other infants in the study.

Beyond its small size, other limitations of the study include its reliance on parents to accurately recall and report how babies were fed, the authors note. The study also included families that may be more affluent and educated than the general population and focused on breastfed babies, which may mean the results wouldn’t apply to all infants.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove how infant food choices directly impact children’s eating habits as they grow up.

“Although the observed association cannot confirm a cause and effect relationship, parents should be informed about the provision of home-prepared meat, fruit and vegetables during a baby’s transition to solid food is linked with increased diet diversity in the first year of life,” Mok said.

SOURCE: International Journal of Obesity, online February 6, 2017.