Would your child choose fish with fennel or porridge?

Designer babyfoods are aimed at guilty parents says Ruth Picardie

It had to happen. After premium nappies and Heinz purified water with a hint of strawberry (42p for 100ml), Britain's first designer babyfood is about to hit a supermarket near you. Developed with the help of Mark Hix, executive chef at The Ivy and Le Caprice, the Original Fresh Babyfood range is "natural", "healthy", packed with fresh herbs and starts at 99p for 100g. Four-month-olds may like to start their evening meal with Sweet Potato and Carrot with a Hint of Cinnamon followed by Rice with Courgette and a Little Banana. Seven-month-olds can move on to Mushroom and Sweet Pepper Risotto (served with honey and a pinch of turmeric) or perhaps the Baked Fish with Fennel and Potato ("succulent small bites of hoki and potato subtly flavoured with fennel and dill"), both pounds 1.29 for 175gm.

Once upon a time babies sucked rum from their pacifiers and munched maltodextrin - the monosodium glutamate of the babyfood world - in their powdered food. Then the middle-classes discovered healthy eating and good mothers were urged to spend their nights pureeing organic carrots and freezing them in individually labelled cubes. Actress Leslie Ash, an example to us all, preferred her children, Joseph and Max, to have "fresh juice and steamed vegetables every day". Liz Earle, the author of the Quick Guide to Baby & Toddler Foods (Boxtree), suggested mothers bake potato skins instead of buying crisps and eschew iced cakes and biscuits for "a snack of popcorn tossed with sunflower seeds and soy sauce". If we failed, parents were saved from NCT coventry by feeding their loved ones Baby Organix muesli - almost as good as the real thing and only three times the price. Now we can feel even less guilty, with fresh Creamy Parsnip and Potato "delicately flavoured with cumin and coriander".

Clearly, babyfood for the guilty middle-classes is big business: the creators of the range, Keith and Belinda Mitchell, may be a "real" couple whose fashionably named tots Oscar and Clementine feature prominently on the press release, but they are hard-headed business people who believe there is a pounds 20m market for fresh baby food, of which they can grab pounds 6m. Similarly, Tesco is now selling "child-sized cherry tomatoes" packaged like sweets, price 49p for a 100g tube (that's pounds 2 per lb in old money). But to paraphrase Shirley Conran, if life's too short to stuff a mushroom then there's certainly no time to make Cauliflower and Broccoli Cheese (With a Hint of Nutmeg), only for it to be comprehensively smeared in baby's hair and then thrown on the floor. If M&S food (delicious, convenient, expensive) is an essential part of adult life, why not indulge your babies, too?

Unfortunately, the babyfood business is full of backlashes: today's healthy food (honey, soya milk, peanuts) is tomorrow's killer (bacteria, infertility, allergies). And here comes another one.

" 'Fresh' is like 'natural', I'm afraid," says Tom Sanders, professor of nutrition and dietetics at King's College, London. "Meaningless. Nutrients are nutrients. It doesn't make any difference how they're processed, given that vitamins are added to bottled food."

But there's worse to come. "This range appears to be applying adult nutritional values - ie low fat and nice taste - to babies, which is not appropriate. The important thing is to have a source of iron, since anaemia is a significant problem in infants. And the best source of that is meat. In any case, with weaning you should start with one flavour at a time, to minimise the risk of triggering allergies. Lack of variety is a good thing."

"Quite honestly," confirms Dr Jackie Stordy, senior lecturer in nutrition at Surrey University, "courgettes aren't going to help the child much. They might be what the parents are eating, but vegetable purees tend to have a low energy density and infants need calories and other nutrients in a more concentrated form. Vitamin C deficiency is almost never a problem, but studies have shown that parents who are focused on weight loss underfeed their children. Up to 5 per cent of paediatric admissions are for slow growth."

But doesn't it at least taste nice - the all important value for the fussy baby, to whom we are desperate to feed something, even lowly courgette? "A baby's palate is not concerned with nuances of taste in the way adult palates are," says Ursula Arens, senior nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. "A six-month-old is not going to get excited about cumin and coriander." The message? Let them eat Weetabix and Heinz beef strog. "Commercial baby foods are better than the stuff mothers prepare at home," says Tom Sanders. "They're sterile, with less salt, and added iron. Look at kids today: bloody enormous." The only problemette for the guilty mum? A bug called BSE.

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