The food most often offered to babies in a Western diet is bland fortified rice cereal – but taking a look at the eating habits of babies in other parts of the world shows baby food can be far from flavourless.
In her fascinating book First Bite: How We Learn To Eat, food writer Bee Wilson draws on the latest research from food psychologists, neuroscientists and nutritionists to reveal that our food habits are shaped by family and culture, memory and gender, hunger and love.
Bee examines why the Japanese eat so healthily, whereas the vast majority of teenage boys in Kuwait have a weight problem.
A diet of seal blubber keeps Inuit babies thriving in icy Alaska. But the nuk-tuk and seaweed is balanced by roots, berries and vegetables. This is how they eat, this is their way of life.
“From our first year of life, human tastes are astonishingly diverse,” writes Bee. She says with no intrinsic knowledge of what makes good and bad food, babies learn from their parents how food should taste.
What is considered to be nourishing food for babies varies widely across cultures.
Sweet potato, known locally as ngwaci, is rich in vitamin A, a nutrient often deficient in Kenyan children. It is also a good source of vitamin C, fibre and B vitamins.
The most popular baby food in Hawaii is poi, a puree made from the root of taro, a staple starch in Polynesian cuisine. The pale purple paste makes a nutrient-dense first food for infants: it’s a probiotic, high in calcium and iron, and rarely causes allergies.
The French Society of Paediatrics recommends babies as young as five months be fed bouillon, a watery vegetable soup, in a bottle mixed with milk. In order to develop their palates as they grow, young babies are exposed to many types of tastes and textures, including leeks, spinach and baby endive. French children, who record the lowest incidence of childhood obesity in the world, eat balanced meals four times a day.
Made from fermented maize, pap is a common first food for Nigerian babies. Making it is a labour of love, requiring a long process of soaking and straining that gives it its distinctive sour taste.
In India, porridge made from finger millet is considered a suitable first food for babies because of a lack of gluten. Suji kheer, semolina cooked with milk and sometimes sugar, lightly spiced dal khichdi and mushy vegetables with ghee are other favourites. After the age of one children eat the same food as the rest of the family. “In India children’s food is just food,” writes Bee. “The food of childhood is not something you ever have to outgrow.”
Japanese babies are fed okayo (rice porridge), tofu with codfish or shirasu (whitebait) and natto made from fermented soybeans. Natto is good for intestinal health and is rich in vitamin K2.