Researchers say that commercial baby foods do not meet an infant’s weaning needs and provide little extra nutritional goodness, compared with breast milk. This is according to a study published in Archives of Disease in Childhood.

The weaning process is considered to be a crucial process in an infant’s early life, aiming to introduce him or her to a wider range of textures, tastes and flavors, and encouraging the acceptance of a variety of foods while boosting nutrient and energy intake.

Although it is the mother’s decision as to when the weaning process should begin, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months after birth.

However, commercial baby foods are promoted from the age of 4 months, which the researchers say could discourage mothers from continued breastfeeding.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Glasgow in the UK, analyzed a variety of 462 baby foods produced by four UK manufacturers, in order to determine the nutritional content. These included ready-made soft and wet foods, powdered meals that require added milk or water, breakfast cereals, and dry finger foods including biscuits, snacks and raisins.

From the products assessed, 410 (79%) were ready-made spoonable foods, of which 44% were aimed at infants from the age of 4 months.

Of the spoonable foods, it was found that their energy content was identical to that of breast milk (283 kj/100 g), while their protein content was only 40% higher than formula milk.

The products containing meat had the highest iron content, although this was no higher than formula milk and only slightly higher than products without meat.

Overall, dry finger foods showed the highest levels of energy and nutrient density. However, they were significantly higher in sugar. The researchers say that infants have a preference for sweet foods, which is why the majority of commercial baby foods contain high amounts.

The study authors say:

While it is understandable that parents may choose to use commercial foods early in the weaning process, health professionals should be aware that such food will not add to the nutrient density of a milk diet.”

The researchers also compared the nutritional content of commercial baby food with typical family homemade foods often given to infants and toddlers.

The savory ready-made spoonable foods showed much lower nutrient density, compared with homemade foods, but they were higher in iron content.

However, the study authors add that a 50 g portion of spoonable homemade food is likely to supply the same amount of protein and energy as 100 g of a spoonable commercial product, so homemade food should be served in its place – as long as it is prepared correctly.

“When advising families, [health professionals] should encourage them to progress to suitable family foods, particularly later in the first year of life,” they add.

“Home weaning foods need to be prepared differently from family food. Salt and sugar should not be added and inappropriate adaptation of family meals to weaning foods may contribute to a high sodium intake.”

Research from 2012 published in BMJ Open suggested that infants who feed themselves with finger foods from the start of the weaning process are more likely to maintain a healthy body weight later in life.