Why processed is not the best

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The Independent Online
Until relatively recently, the words "baby food" conjured up nothing more exciting than a bit of stewed apple and a rusk.

Now, however, as well as a wide selection of formula milks, the discerning baby can choose from a massive selection with labels such as "Fisherman's Surprise" or even "Carrots and coriander risotto".

For working mothers, the relentless growth of processed baby foods has been welcome. It has freed up valuable time, and means that even the fussiest baby can be catered for.

Despite a flurry of contamination scares in recent years, fierce competition and advertising have led to a boom in the British industry, which is now worth more than pounds 400m, compared to pounds 191m in 1989.

Eighty per cent of Britain's 1 million babies aged between four and 20 months are eating and drinking their way through sales worth more than pounds 120m a year.

And why not, when the manufacturers' labels suggest that their baby milks and foods are additive-free, sugar-free and perhaps even healthier than anything a mother could make herself?

But some nutritional bodies are among those questioning whether processed is, in fact, best.

Only two of 11 formula milks for babies tested by scientists at South Bank University in February provided enough selenium to meet the Health Department's recommendation of 10mg a day.

The nutrient's effects include protection against heart disease and cancer.

And the Food Commission's recent survey into 60 leading brand baby foods showed that they are often packed with starches and thickeners, massive levels of sugar and tiny amounts of meat.

Nutritional values can be so low that a seven-month-old baby drinking 500ml of full- cream milk a day would still need to eat as many as six jars a day to get enough calories.

One rusk contained twice the percentage of sugar of a ring doughnut, while baby puddings can often contain the equivalent of 16-17 sugar lumps in a typical jar.

Some dishes contained the starch maltodextrine - more commonly used as a gum on postage stamps, while several baby drinks contained more sugar than Coca-Cola.

Fromage frais has been another baby-food boom market since it crossed the Channel in 1985.

Some manufacturers say that packs state clearly that their fromage frais is not suitable for babies under six months.

But many mothers choose it when babies try solids at three to four months because it is easy to serve, and babies like its creamy taste.

While a good source of protein and calcium, a survey found that pots of fromage frais may contain colourings, starch thickeners and preservatives such as E202, which, while approved for use, is still considered suspect by some experts after causing liver damage in test animals.

The popular little pots were also found to contain massive levels of sugar: one had the equivalent of four sugar lumps as well as unnecessary additives.

But while there are controls regarding artificial additives, salts and sugars in baby foods, there are fewer restrictions on products targeted at children.

Many confectioners are increasing levels of E numbers, despite concerns about their links to hyperactivity and other disorders. One brand of sweets, for example, contains six colourings, three of which are banned in several countries.