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The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Foodies Making Baby Food

One of our first batches of baby food!
An ominous shadow hangs over the baby food industry. For at least the last few years, strangely vague reports have been circulating that baby food is often very high in both lead and arsenic—not necessarily high enough to be illegal or immediately damaging, but high enough to be worrisome in the long run.

What I find most outrageous about these reports is that specific companies and products are never listed. I guess their corporate protections are more important than our health. These reports do give some clues, however. They say that the products with the highest levels are fruit juices, root vegetables (sweet potatoes and carrots are named) and sometimes apples and pears. They say that very often baby food is higher in lead than their adult food equivalents. However, lead amounts vary from company to company but we consumers are left in the dark about which ones are the offenders.

This warrants a lot of speculation. Does the high lead come from the extra machine processing in making the purees? From the added water? If so, do all foods that are mechanically chopped and pureed or with added water have high lead or just baby food?

Reports speculate that the issues with root vegetables could be soil contamination. If that is the case, then making baby food at home would not necessarily make a difference, unless you check the region and soil quality where the produce was grown. Sweet potatoes seem particularly high in lead. Is that because sweet potatoes do a good job of picking up lead in the soil or is it because sweet potatoes are more typically grown in areas with high lead (such as post-industrial areas of the U.S. South with poor industry regulations?) Before serving sweet potatoes, I call the stores to find out the state of origin--if it's Texas, Louisiana or Mississippi, I won't touch it.

Overall, you will likely reduce lead if you prepare homemade baby food, even if you don't eliminate all of it.

Commercial Baby Food

We started introducing solid foods to Lucy by buying mostly Beechnut Naturals. We were exhausted and busy, and making baby food seemed like an enormous task at the time. Beechnut seems to be a relatively reputable company (although that is definitely a crap shoot as I am basing this only on intuition after some emails with their customer service). We liked that they do not add water to most of their products. I would not be surprised to find out that the added water may be a source of the higher concentrations of lead, as municipal water containing lead is a problem all over the country (not just in Flint, MI). The water may also bring chlorine and fluoride, too, depending on the quality of filtration. It's best to limit as many variables as possible, I say. You can't ensure the quality of every spoonful that goes into your baby's mouth, but you can do your due diligence to give the best possible outcome and then hope for the best.

The deal breaker for me was discovering how they skimp out on quality ingredients. Several of Beechnut's products feature avocados. They even picture a big avocado on the jar. That's for good reason, as avocados are super nutritious, especially being a great source of fat. That's why I was surprised when the nutrition label on an avocado-containing product showed no discernable traces of fat. I went to the Beechnut website and to their credit they listed the proportion of ingredients. All of the avocado-containing products that I researched contained only 5% avocado! Seriously. No wonder it is not enough to move the dial on the nutrition label.

Between the reports of lead and arsenic, the lack of fresh/raw choices and the way companies cheap out on ingredients, it made all the more sense to simply make our own. Perhaps the best part of buying commercial baby food for a few weeks was accumulating a supply of glass jars to re-use.

Baby Bullet

We love using the Baby Bullet. Andrea and I are seasoned veterans in making NutriBullet smoothies ourselves, so that definitely helps. The main difficulty about the Baby Bullet is that it can be temperamental if the amount of food you want to blend is either too much or too little. You simply can't get a good blend if the amount is off. I've shed a few curse words fighting with the machine, having to add water or take out ingredients to get it to blend up in a good swirl. It definitely takes practice.

It is also difficult to make large batches of food. The machine will overheat and spontaneously konk out, and you'll be left wondering if it's going to re-start again or whether it's done for good. It can take a long time before it cools enough to work again.

Other than that, it is really quite easy to make baby food. The hard part of making baby food is all the cooking, peeling, washing and storing, but the blending itself is the easiest part of the process.

Storage - We find that the blended baby foods don't last very long in the fridge at all. Books will tell you that purees can last 3-5 days, but in our experience they often start to taste funky after 24 hours. It may still be edible but it can leave an aftertaste. That makes sense, as the bullet breaks down food at the cellular level, so any protections the food may have had against deterioration have been dismantled. Whatever we don't use immediately after blending we freeze. Also, once a frozen jar is thawed and used at a meal, we never save any of the leftovers. Andrea or I will eat it but we won't use it again for Lucy.
     When we're busy, we can't always make all the baby food we want in one sitting. We have to do it in stages. Blended purees may not last very long in the fridge, but steamed vegetables do. They also deteriorate but not nearly as quickly. We sometimes keep glass containers of steamed fruits and vegetables in the fridge and blend them up when we can. That buys a few days.

Silicone Food Steamer - The best item we bought was a silicone food steamer. It was less than $10 and well worth it. It does a marvelous job preserving taste and nutrition by gently steaming vegetables/fruits rather than depleting them in a boil. It is also very fast as it takes almost no time at all to get the small quantity of water to start doing its work.

Organic and Pasture-Raised - We try to give Lucy an almost completely organic diet. We want to give her the best possible start, and we figure that now is the time we'll have the most control over her diet. We hope she has a physical memory of what good food tastes and feels like that she can come back to later in life.
     We're not sticklers for the organic label but we follow closely the "dirty dozen" list from the Environmental Working Group. We stick to organic when it comes to their top 20 bad guys. We are flexible about the rest. Organic is still the best but sometimes finances and sheer availability make finding all organic options difficult.

Grains - The only grain Lucy has eaten so far is organic whole-grain steel cut oats. It does not make up a large portion of her diet. She eats 8-13 oz of solid food each day right now, and of that oats comprise only 2-3 oz. We are holding off on high gluten-containing grains until she gets older, per standard pediatrician recommendations.
     Many people give their children rice cereal as a first food. We haven't done that for a couple of reasons. First, Lucy is never far from constipation, so rice is not likely to help. Second, it is very hard to find rice that is low in lead and arsenic. Rice is grown in flooded, low-lying areas, and it absorbs considerable water during its growing process. As result, it does a marvelous job picking up contaminants. Even worse, it is often grown in areas of high contamination to begin with, such as East Asia or in Gulf coast states in the U.S. There are lots of refineries from the leaded-gas days (in "red" states with poor regulatory oversight) and much of the nearby land is now used to grow rice, sweet potatoes and cotton. However, tests show that the California-grown Lundberg brand of rice is consistently very low in lead and arsenic. If/when we do start to use rice, we'll stick to this brand exclusively.
     This is a lot of needless worry, because the world is full of all sorts of gluten-free grains without all the potential toxic baggage of rice. Quinoa and sorghum are a few such examples. If you want to bulk up your baby's foods with some carb additions, try these! Bob's Red Mill is a great company to start with, especially their Grains of Discovery line (they are not the only game around, there are so many other great companies, but Bob's is a good one stop shop for a lot of things). It offers most of these grains and their products are readily available all over. NOTE:  Millet is controversial and potentially dangerous and I recommend doing research before serving (I'm not serving it)! In fact, I'd recommend researching all of them. Many grains are used all over the world but some do not have a long history in the U.S., so their idiosyncrasies are not well known. Quinoa is probably fine to consume, but I try to avoid large quantities only because the quinoa market has been so destructive of indigenous cultures in Peru.

Fats & Oils - We know how important it is to give high-quality fats and oils to a baby. It is necessary for processing fat-soluble nutrients as well as for proper brain and central nervous system development. Human breast milk is even higher in fat than cow's milk. Unfortunately, many Americans are still operating out of the anti-fat hysteria movement. That movement is dying but it will take some time to re-tool and re-train the whole population.  In any case, we generally make sure that most meals have a healthy fat component. Lucy likes extra virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, avocado or meats. We tried unsalted grass fed butter once and she didn't seem to like it, but we just haven't gotten around to trying again.
     We add coconut oil and olive oil to most meals, unless they contain avocado or meat. We always add it in when the food is being served. We never blend it in, freeze it or re-heat it.
     Sometimes for dinner we offer just a meal of fruit--no fats or proteins. It's good to have balanced meals, but sometimes it's also good to just not be so strict about it. Fruit especially is good to serve by itself.

Meats - Experts are saying that it's not only good but advisable to offer meats at an early stage. Lucy has so far had chicken, beef and pork. She seems to do well with them. She's less enthusiastic about beef, it seems, but it's hard to tell.  She gets meat about 5 times each week. Some foodies will recommend a lot more meat.
     Grass Fed Liver - If I want my foodie credentials, then that means offering the ultimate: Beef liver from grass fed cows. Lucy has had it a couple of times. Honestly, I think it is a very intense food and I feel it is best to offer it sparingly. She had a couple servings and then had trouble sleeping the next few days. Coincidence?  Perhaps, but I know that beef liver can make it hard for me to sleep if I have too much. It makes me feel permanently awake and energetic—which can be a great thing in the right amounts and during the appropriate times and a terrible choice at other times.

Made in Nature - I searched high and low for prunes that were organic, had no added water and no added preservatives. This turned out to be a difficult task, especially with plums not in season. I finally found the Made in Nature brand. I love this stuff. We keep bags of their plums (i.e. prunes), apricots and mission figs on hand at all times. They are great to throw into a blend for added fiber, sweetness or as a thickening agent. They are super nutritious, delicious and easy to use. They can add richness to an otherwise bland meal. The only caveat is that you may have to blend for longer periods to break up the rather thick textures. I discovered them at Fresh Thyme Farmers Market but they are far cheaper ordering direct from the manufacturer online.

Sweetening the Pot - It may sound unhealthy at first, but we try to blend up Lucy's foods in a medium that brings sweetness and flavor. We learned a long time ago that some foods need a little extra help. I mean, who wants a meal of nothing but broccoli? We have found that meals go down easier if they are blended with pears, apples, peas or butternut squash. Apple-broccoli may sound weird to an adult, but it works just fine as baby food.
     I am not worried about offering foods that are "too sweet." We are not adding any sweeteners or fruit juices. We are simply offering sweet fruits and vegetables all intact with their natural fibers (well, except for the peels . . . for now).
     One time Lucy had a raw pear (peeled) and seemed to have acute stomach aches that day. Its hard to tell if she's just not developmentally ready for it or whether it was a fluke. Naturally, there could have been other explanations for her behavior, but I don't like the idea of experimenting on my daughter. We simply avoid raw pear for now, but we'll try it again in a few months. However, she has had lots of raw apple with no discernible problems. Cooked apples and pears are much sweeter, however.
     Cascadian Farms frozen peas are amazingly sweet and well worth it.

Favorite Foods - Like a lot of babies, Lucy prefers sweet tastes to savory. Her favorite meals are oatmeal with combinations of fruits. She loves tropical fruits, especially.

It's hard to get creative. Lucy eats a lot of rich, healthy foods, but she also eats a lot of the same things over and over. Hardly a day goes boy when she doesn't have oats, avocados, bananas and peas in some form. I know I'd be sick of them if I did that. But we also serve foods that make us feel great when we eat them. We often enjoy a big bowl of oatmeal with fruit or a meal of avocado and fruits or concoctions of health meats and veggies. Sometimes when I'm traveling I'll find a grocery store and get an avocado, apple, banana and maybe some pistachios for breakfast and I just feel great.

Some of our favorite foods:

chicken - mango - avocado
banana - avocado - blueberry
oatmeal - banana - prune, apricot and/or fig - (served with coconut oil)
pea - cauliflower - (served with olive oil)

That's it for now! We appreciate hearing other tips,  recommendations and insights from others, as well!

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