baby eating

Mmm.

When I had my son last year, I wasn’t lulled into thinking his body was a pure, unsullied canvas. I knew that babies are born polluted and that breast milk is full of rocket fuel. Still, it’s nice to maintain the illusion of purity, so as not to go completely insane. So I buy organic baby food, and I’m not alone: by 2007, parents were spending $116 million on organics for their babies, a 21.6 percent increase from the previous year alone.

Though that’s still a small slice of the $3.6 billion baby food pie, it’s nothing to sneeze a mouthful of carrots at. But are all organic baby foods created equal? Even in the health-food sector, there’s dissension in the ranks, between conventional jarred-food companies and a newer contingent of frozen-food entrepreneurs who say their method is more nutritionally sound. Then, of course, there’s the simple notion of making your own.

baby foods

Curious about the options, I asked my neighbor Karin and her one-year-old son to help my eight-month-old and me test several types of baby food, including my own homemade mush. Our panel lacked some scientific rigor, due to the fact that the two youngest members had somewhat less than discriminating palates. Nevertheless, we were able to draw a few useful conclusions. Here’s what we found.

Earth’s Best
Yay!: Certified organic, no genetically modified ingredients, extensive selection
Uh-oh: High sodium levels
Price: $0.80/4 oz.

This widely available jarred brand boasts an extensive range of flavors and textures for infants, and makes frozen items for older kids as well. And even though Earth’s Best has been a pawn in the green corporatization chain for a while, current owner Hain Celestial has been recognized several times recently for its green efforts. It tasted good, but the one troubling thing I noticed was consistently higher sodium levels compared to the same flavors in other jarred brands.

Gerber Organic
Yay!: Certified organic, easy to find, comes in handy plastic containers
Uh-oh: Those handy plastic containers — and corporate evil
Price: $0.79/4 oz. or $1.50/7 oz.

This line, introduced as Tender Harvest in 1997 and rebranded in 2006, tastes just fine, and I have to admit that the plastic containers are convenient for travel. But yes, they’re plastic. Perhaps a bigger worry for sustainable-minded shoppers is Gerber’s track record: it has a history of pushing unhealthy foods on unsuspecting parents and is now owned by Nestle, which has a tawdry pushing history of its own. Yuck.

Organic Baby
Yay!: Certified organic from a company that cares
Uh-oh: May be hard to find
Price: $0.79/4 oz.

This unassuming line of jarred baby food was introduced in 1997 by United Natural Foods, a wholesale distribution conglomerate with natural roots. While the babies ate it quite happily, my neighbor and I were both only semi-whelmed by the flavor of the squash, which she described as “eh” and I thought was verging on tangy. Still, a solid contender.

Wild Harvest
Yay!: Certified organic
Uh-oh: Tastes like baby food — if you’re into that sort of thing
Price: $0.79/4 oz.

Available at several large grocery chains, this jarred brand’s sweet potato tasted the most like “baby food” to me — in a bad way. But my neighbor found the flavor comparable to Earth’s Best, in a good way — and the babies both lapped it up.

Plum Organics
Yay!: Certified organic, BPA-free packaging
Uh-oh: High price, limited flavor options
Price: $3.69/8 oz.

This frozen offering pairs four-ounce, resealable containers in one box. My neighbor and I tried the greens — a blend of spinach, peas, and beans — and both exclaimed that it tasted “like real food” (imagine that!). The babies initially weren’t so keen, though mine ended up eating almost the entire serving. Ultimately, the high price and limited palette — two to six flavors, depending on the stage — make this a supplement, not a staple.

Happy Baby
Yay!: Certified organic, BPA-free packaging
Uh-oh: High price, limited availability
Price: $4.69/12 oz.

This Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company makes frozen meals for babies, toddlers, and kids. The baby version comes in one-ounce cubes in a BPA-free tray, with two different flavors paired together. We tried the sweet potato and found it incredibly smooth and creamy — like pudding. The cubes thawed quickly, too. And the icing on the cake, at least for some parents: this product has the endorsement of Dr. Sears (cue angelic choir).

Little Lettice
Yay!: Certified organic, carbon-aware
Uh-oh: High price, extremely limited availability
Price: $2.99/4 oz.

We tried the butternut squash flavor, and it was seriously yummy — creamy and sweet. And the environmental goodness of this small Massachusetts company seems to match the culinary goodness: they use local ingredients when possible, and don’t ship outside the region in an effort to keep their carbon footprint (and costs, one assumes) manageable. Unfortunately, they … don’t ship outside the region. Sorry, suckas.

Homemade squash and sweet potato
Yay!: Cheaper to buy in bulk, no surprises
Uh-oh: Takes a little more time, need to provide own containers
Price: $1.39/18 oz. (two medium-sized sweet potatoes), $3.99/20 oz. (squash, pre-peeled)

When it came time to taste-test the squash and sweet potato I’d cooked, I knew exactly what they’d taste like. And then I realized: I knew exactly what they’d taste like! Funny thing about making your own food: there are no mystery ingredients, no weird preparation methods, no secrets. Yes, it takes a little more time — but if you cook a squash, mush it up, and smear it into an ice cube tray, you’ve created enough servings to last a long while.

The Bottom Line: Our distinguished panel definitely felt that the frozen baby foods tasted better than the jarred ones. However, they’d be prohibitively expensive if they were all you bought. Luckily, there’s one option that’s affordable, tasty, and healthy: making your own. You can do it!