Moms are bombarded with nutritional information. How do you separate the old wives’ tales from the gems, the science from the pseudo-science? We put some commonly held beliefs to the test
Knowing what to feed your baby can be daunting. We investigate 20 food 'myths':
Organic food is more nutritious than conventionally produced food
The UK’s Food Standards Authority (FSA) found in a scientific study in 2009 that there are no important health and nutritional benefits to be gained from eating organic food compared to conventionally farmed food. Detractors say the study failed to look at a number of important areas, such as the high level of antioxidants in organic foods, or the dangers of pesticides and nitrogen in conventional food.
Consumers choose organic because it is more planet-friendly, not genetically modified and does not contain additives like tartrazine, aspartame and MSG, and they believe it tastes better. You’ll be paying 20% to 100% more for organic food.
Fresh food is best
Depends what you mean by "fresh". Often what we think of as fresh food has been hanging around in warehouses, markets, shops and your own fridge for weeks! Food loses nutrients fairly rapidly over time. One study found that spinach lost half its folates in 4 to 8 days (nutrients were lost more slowly when the spinach was kept at lower temperatures).
Frozen and canned foods may in fact retain more of their nutrients than fresh produce. Vegetables are usually picked and packed when they are good and ripe and nutritionally at their peak. The process of flash-freezing means vegetables may be frozen within hours of being picked, reducing the breakdown of chemicals. The heating press in canning does cause some nutrient loss, but not significantly.
TIPS: Foods deteriorate, even in the freezer or the tin, so don’t leave them indefinitely. Check the labels on cans and avoid those with added sugar and salt. Buy small quantities of fresh fruit and veg, eat them and buy again. Or buy in bulk, prepare and freeze.
Oranges are tops for vitamin C
Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that is helpful to the immune system. Oranges are high in vitamin C, but kiwis have even more. Guavas are another good source. With these options, it should be easy enough to make sure your child gets enough.
TIP: Vitamin C is at its height when fruit is slightly under-ripe.
Kids need “kids’ food”
Not so! It’s crazy that most children's menus feature foods that are beige, bland, oily and full of salt or sugar. Kids are not born wanting chicken nuggets and chips. Introduce your baby to different tastes and textures, so she will come to accept a normal, healthy diet. By the age of 1, a baby’s diet can be pretty much the same as yours, with a few exceptions. By 2, your toddler should be eating a variety of wholesome foods – the same healthy diet that suits the whole family.
Babies need bland food
Although Western babies are traditionally served bland foods, there’s no reason why older babies and toddlers who are accepting foods well shouldn’t enjoy a more flavourful diet. Babies learn their food preferences from their families. In fact, evidence suggests that babies become accustomed to the favourite foods of their culture or family through breastmilk, where stronger flavours like garlic, ginger, cumin and other spices are present in tiny amounts.
While we are not suggesting that you move straight from milk onto rogan josh, a dash of cinnamon or a sprinkling of oregano might be a good addition to your older baby’s meals.
Introduce vegetables before fruit
Traditionally, vegetables are offered before fruit otherwise your baby will get used to the sweet taste and reject the stronger flavoured vegetables. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support this and, as some feeding experts point out, breastmilk is sweet anyway.
There really are no hard and fast rules as to the order in which you introduce foods, as long as you avoid the “no-no” foods that could cause allergies or choking, or that are otherwise unsuitable for babies.
It’s important to eat a variety of foods
Every foodstuff has a different mix of nutrients, so the more different foods your toddler eats, the better chance she has of getting all the vitamins and minerals she needs.
Irene Labuschagne, registered dietitian at the Nutrition Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch (NICUS), says, “Children are growing so they need more nutritious food in proportion to their weight than adults. Ideally, a child’s diet should contain a suitable balance of nutritious foods, including fruit, vegetables, whole and enriched grains and cereals, milk and other dairy products, meat, fish, poultry and other protein sources. To provide all the essential nutrients, a child’s meals and snacks should include a variety of foods from each group.”
On the other hand, there’s a lot of common ground, so it’s not necessary to force those Brussels sprouts down if she’ll happily eat spinach!
If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying, says Irene, drawing attention to a study that found that babies showed a significantly increased acceptance of vegetables after being offered them for 10 days.
TIP: When it comes to fruit and veg, serve a variety of colours, as all have their own nutritional advantages. Dark green leafy vegetables, deep orange veg and colourful fruits are tops!
Low fat for grown-ups, full fat for kids
Babies under the age of 2 should be given whole-fat milk, as they need more fat for brain development and have high energy requirements. Older toddlers and preschoolers have a varied diet and are usually getting fat from many sources, so low-fat milk is acceptable. Don’t be afraid to give “good fats” like avocado.
Sugar makes kids hyper
Irene says, “Tightly controlled research has failed to show that children who consistently eat high levels of sugar were hyperactive. Nor did hyperactivity occur after children consumed single high doses of sugar.” Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA have concluded that the effects of refined sugar and food additives may have a role to play in only about five percent of children with ADHD, mostly either very young children or children with food allergies.
Despite the research, many parents beg to differ! Most of us have seen kids bouncing of the walls after birthday parties. One theory is that excitement, overstimulation, lack of sleep and other factors cause the hyperactivity that we usually blame on sugar. Another is that it could be the artificial additives in party foods (see point 13).
It doesn’t matter if baby teeth decay, as they are going to fall out anyway
Not true! If the baby teeth fall out or are taken out before the right time, this can affect the position of the permanent teeth. Good oral hygiene and healthy eating are habits that are easier to inculcate if you start early.
Drinking lots of fruit juice is just as good as eating fruit and vegetables
Pure 100% fruit juice does contain vitamins, but it is no substitute for whole fruits and vegetables, which also contain fibre. Fruit juice contains a lot of calories and natural sugar and a child who drinks litres of juice may be a poor eater. It’s a good idea to get your baby into the habit of drinking water.
TIP: Always water down pure fruit juice with at least 50% water.
All babies and toddlers should have a daily vitamin supplement
Ideally, a healthy diet should provide the nutrients your baby or child needs. The advice from NICUS is that a micronutrient supplement is generally not necessary if your child eats well and the diet is adequate in energy and protein. Children who may benefit from micronutrient supplementation are those from deprived families, with poor eating habits and poor appetites, with chronic diseases like cystic fibrosis, who are on strict vegetarian diets or are obese and on weight-management programs.
One mineral that needs special attention is iron. It is generally recommended that breastfed babies over the age of 6 months eat iron-fortified cereal or be given an iron supplement if recommended by your doctor. If your baby is on formula, check whether the formula has added iron.
TIP: Your diet affects your breastmilk. Your doctor might recommend that you continue taking a prenatal vitamin supplement while you're breastfeeding.
Food additives make kids hyper
Anecdotal evidence from parents tells us that after a good dose of highly processed foods swimming in additives (think birthday party fare), children would bounce off the walls. But do scientists agree? Irene Labuschagne says emerging evidence indicates that additives do impact on behaviour, at least in some kids.
A recent UK study found a link between food additives and hyperactivity in children. Certain common colourings and preservatives were found to have a “significant adverse effect” on children’s behaviour, in particular, on ADHD children. Kids were more hyperactive and had shorter attention spans. The E numbers in the study are: Sunset yellow (E110), Quinoline yellow (E104), Carmoisine (E122), Allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102), Ponceau 4R (E124) and the preservative sodium benzonate (E211).
If your child appears to suffer adverse effects, consult your doctor, or try to eliminate additives from the diet.
Babies may outgrow allergies
True! Once their digestive systems and immune systems mature, babies sometimes do outgrow their reactions to certain foods. By the age of 3, many young children outgrow common food intolerances (to milk, soy, wheat or eggs, in particular). Even if these intolerances persist into childhood, there is a chance that your child will outgrow them as an adult. Unfortunately, children do not outgrow severe allergies, such as to peanuts.
Rice cereal is the perfect first food
Rice cereal has many advantages – it’s unlikely to cause allergies, it mixes to a smooth consistency and it has a mild flavour – and is often recommended as the ideal first food. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t start with any soft food that is unlikely to cause a reaction, for example pumpkin or cooked strained apple.
Cut out dairy if your child has a cold
There’s a common belief that dairy products increase mucus production, but do they? Studies show that milk is not associated with an increase in cold symptoms or mucus production. A study compared cow’s milk with a soy drink, which has similar mouth-feel characteristics. Subjects who believed that milk causes mucus reported the same increase in mucus production when they drank the soy milk. Researchers speculate that it may be something to do with the feel of the milk in the throat.
TIP: If you suspect your toddler is lactose intolerant, get your doctor’s advice. Be wary of cutting dairy from the diet – it is a valuable source of calcium, protein and other nutrients and yoghurt, in particular, is popular with kids and full of probiotics. Tammy Wolhuter, a registered dietician from Anne Till & Associates, recommends that children get at least three servings of dairy a day.
Feed a cold and starve a fever
Neither is true. Babies and toddlers do sometimes go off their food when they are ill, but it is essential that they get nutrients and especially fluids. Continue breast- or bottlefeeding your baby. Give regular sips of water or juice to a feverish toddler. A child with a sore throat may not want to eat – try soup or make ice lollies out of fruit juice.
Eggs are not good for babies
Eggs are one of the more common allergy foods, which is why doctors recommend waiting before introducing them. People who are allergic to eggs usually react to the proteins in the white; but an allergy to yolk is much less common. For this reason, well-cooked egg yolk is recommended for babies from 6 months, while experts suggest you wait until your baby is a year old before giving her whole egg. If you have a family history of allergy, your doctor might advise you to wait until your child is 2 before giving her egg.
TIP: Eggs are quick and easy to cook, and a good source of protein, iron, folate, zinc and vitamin B12.
Babies need omega 3 supplementation
Omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial for cognitive development, vision, heart health, mood regulation and even ADHD, and are particularly important for brain development in the first 2 years. A recent study found that very premature babies may benefit from receiving additional DHA through their mother’s milk or formula.
Oily, cold-water fish (such as salmon, snoek and sardines) is one of the best sources and the current recommendation is that children should eat two portions of oily fish per week. Babies will get their omega 3 through your milk – as long as you are eating your two 120g servings a week – or through formula that is fortified with omega 3 fatty acids.
Parents are advised to offer fish regularly and to consider serving functional foods enriched with omega 3 fatty acids. Tammy says, “If your child does not eat fish, then an omega 3 fatty acid supplement in the form of docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) is recommended. Make sure that the supplement is not in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), as this is not optimally absorbed in the body.”
TIP: Introduce your toddler to oily fish early; if you leave it too late kids often reject the very fishy flavour. Try combining white fish and oily fish when you make fish cakes or a fish pie.
Growth hormones in meat and milk are making our kids fat
An increasingly sedentary lifestyle and calorie-laden diet are the more likely culprits. According to Tammy, numerous scientific bodies, including the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, have looked at the issue of hormones in milk and meat and have concluded that the use of hormone products is safe. Growth hormones are used in cows to increase milk supply and lean muscle tissue and decrease fat. Tammy adds, “A hormone is a protein: if a hormone is consumed through milk or meat, it is broken down and digested in the gastrointestinal tract and has no hormonal effect in the body.”
TIP: Check the milk label if you want to avoid rBST, a synthetic hormone fed to cows to make them produce more milk. It is banned in some countries, but not in South Africa. Large dairy suppliers such as Woolworths, Clover, Pick n Pay, Nestlé and Parmalat state that they only buy milk produced by rBST-free herds.
Nutrition Information Centre University of Stellenbosch: visit www.sun.ac.za/nicus or contact 021 933 1408
Anne Till Associates: visit www.annetill.com or contact 011 463 4663