Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Feeding Your Baby Salt Can Make Her Crave It For the Rest of Her Life

 By Julia Moravcsik, PhD, author of Teach Your Child to Love Healthy Food

A recent study found something remarkable about babies' taste preferences. Six month old babies who ate salty food like crackers loved the taste of salt years later! These babies grew to be preschool children who would eat, not just salty food, but plain salt! They happily ate plain salt sprinkled on a plate!

The remarkable thing about this study was that the 6 month old babies weren't given especially salty food. They were given food that many parents think is healthy for their children - crackers, bread, and other starchy snacks. Imagine a well-meaning parent giving her baby whole wheat goldfish crackers and thinking that it is a healthy food, not knowing that she is setting her baby up for a lifetime of salt cravings! Even bread, which people don't think of as a high-salt food, is actually fairly high in salt compared to the natural foods that people ate for hundreds of thousands of years.

Starchy Food Is a Bad First Food

Starchy foods are bad first foods for several reasons.
  1. Starchy foods have very little flavor, so they don't teach babies the flavors of real foods. 
  2. Starchy foods in our culture are associated with processed foods. The first flavors your child learns will stick with him the longest. He will be more likely to love these flavors later. If his first foods are starchy, flavorless ones, he'll learn to like the refined flour processed foods that food manufacturers create in their factories.
Now there is another reason not to feed your baby starchy foods. The added salt creates a long term salt craving.

Best First Foods: Meat and Vegetables

Some researchers are recommending meat as a good first food.  Meat is high in iron and zinc. Breast milk is low in both of these nutrients, so meat fills the gaps.

Vegetables are also a good first food. Teaching your baby the taste of many different vegetables at this early age can make her like them for a lifetime. Vegetables are also extremely nutritious. Your baby will get a lot of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Fruit may also be a good first food, but there is still a controversy over whether feeding your baby fruit this early will program her to like sweet tastes. If you want to be safe, stick with vegetables for the first few months.

How to Make a Healthy Cracker

Parents like crackers because they're convenient. It's easy to grab a handful of crackers for baby to munch on a car trip to the grocery store.

There is nothing wrong with an occasional cracker or piece of bread. But try to make sure it is flavorful (like herb or tomato flavored) and unsalted.

If you want a healthy cracker, you can make it yourself. Follow these rules:
  1. Don't add any salt.
  2. Don't add any sweetener.
  3. Add other flavors by adding herbs and spices (preferably fresh).
  4. Don't taste it yourself! I'm kidding here, but if you do taste it, recognize that your adult palate, warped by years of salty, sugary food, may find the crackers boring. Don't worry - your baby will love them!
Recipe for Healthy Whole Wheat Herb Crackers

These crackers have no salt or sugar. They contain herbs, which teach your baby to like the taste of real food. Herbs are also extremely high in antioxidants.

1 cup whole wheat flour (or other whole grain flours)

1/2 cup oatmeal, blended until fine in a blender or food processor

3 tablespoons wheat germ (stored in freezer so it doesn't get rancid)

2 tablespoons sesame or poppy seeds

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh herbs (rosemary, basil, dill, oregano, thyme, cilantro, etc.)

1/3 cup water

1/4 cup olive or other oil

  1.  Mix together the flour, oatmeal, wheat germ, seeds, and herbs.
  2. Add the water and the oil. Mix together or process in a food processor. The dough should come together in a ball. Add more oil and water if it seems too dry.
  3. Roll out until as thin as possible on a floured surface. Cut into shapes using a knife or cookie cutter. 
  4. Place on ungreased baking sheet.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.

Teaching Your Child to Love Healthy Food is NOT Intuitive!

When I see a surprising study like this one, which finds that a seemingly healthy food like whole wheat crackers can have huge impacts on children's eating preferences years later, I realize that using a parent's intuition is not enough. Many parents feed their children food that seems healthy, but years later their children are junk food junkies.

The only way to really teach your child to love healthy food is to follow the research on how children learn their food preferences.

Would you like a simple, easy-to-follow program that will teach your child to love healthy food? See my new book Teach Your Child to Love Healthy Food on amazon.com.

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  1. always proper care must be taken for child food!!!

  2. I'm a little confused by this post. Isn't cereal one of the first foods recommended for a baby to try....which is also starchy? Even the crackers which you have a recipe for are still made with starch(carbohydrate) containing ingredients.

    What are you recommending instead as a first food?

  3. Fleur,

    Thanks for your comment! Really good points.

    I would recommend vegetables and meat as first foods.

    Cereals are often recommended by pediatricians. I was amazed to find, though, there is no scientific evidence for this! I think that parents often ask their pediatricians which foods to feed their babies, so pediatricians feel like they have to recommend something. Starchy, bland foods have become the tradition for first foods.

    Some researchers nowadays are recommending meat as a first food. There isn't much iron and zinc in milk, so meat fills this gap. Baby food manufacturers put iron in their baby cereals, but the fact that they have to fortify cereals means that they aren't naturally a good first food.

    Vegetables are also a good first food because they are extremely nutritious for the number of calories that they provide. Also, there is a short period of time in infancy where babies are open to new tastes, and may be "programmed" to like these tastes for the rest of their lives. Since vegetables are the healthiest and least eaten types of food in our culture, this early training is very important.

    I put in a recipe for crackers for those parents who want a convenient, non-messy food for road trips etc. Looking back at my post, I can see that it is confusing. Thanks for pointing it out Fleur! I will change the post to make it clearer.

    It's sad that there isn't more research on first foods, but I think the scientific community is beginning to study this question. Here are some articles:

    Here is a scientific article talking about meat as a first food. http://content.karger.com/produktedb/produkte.asp?doi=10.1159/0000106371&typ=pdf

    And here's an article finding that babies who had fruits and vegetables as first foods had higher levels of intelligence at 4 years. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2008.02029.x/full

  4. Our baby's first food was ribeye steak, and he LOVED it! We thought that our approach was somewhat controversial, until I happily discovered that our public health department actually recommends -- in its literature for parents -- meat as a first food. Who'd have thought?

    We skipped rice cereal altogether because we were not fussed about the idea of him eating bland, over-processed starchy paste. Without the fortification, rice cereal is completely nutritionally devoid. Also, it is a well-known fact that heme iron (from meat) is much more easily absorbed than the synthetic iron used in fortification.

    With regard to fruit versus vegetables, we feed both, without restrictions. I am not concerned about the sweetness of fruit "ruining" his taste for vegetables. After all, baby's real first food -- breast milk -- is quite sweet, and we certainly don't discourage moms from breastfeeding.

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