Cheerios have long been a popular first finger food for babies; their size and shape make them a perfect snack for new eaters eager to practice the emerging pincer grasp. Sometime around the beginning of the twenty-first century, some genius invented the “baby puff” and boom: a whole generation of toddlers will never hold a Cheerio between dimpled thumb and forefinger. In my own extended family, these snacks have become so popular that my nephew’s first word was…you guessed it…“puff!”
While most of us probably know that Cheerios aren’t nearly as healthful as they claim to be, we are hopeful about puffs. Might they be the miracle food all parents yearn for—portable and mess-free, appealing to young eaters, AND full of vegetables, whole grains, and nutrients? Like most convenient parenting choices, puffs are, heartbreakingly, too good to be true.
What’s Wrong with Puffs?
- Extrusion. All puffs on the market are produced through a process called extrusion, which involves mixing grains with water and–through high temperatures and pressure–forcing them through a tiny hole to give them their desired shape, be it a cornflake or a puff. This process compromises the integrity of the grains’ nutrients, breaks the bonds of fatty acids, inactivates enzymes, increases the glycemic index of the food, and often lowers the vitamin and mineral content. If you want to know more about the problem with extruded grains, check out Sally Fallon’s illuminating article, “Dirty Secrets of the Food Processing Industry.”
- White grains. Many puffs are made of mostly white rice or other non-whole grains. If you’re buying puffs for your baby, opt for varieties whose first few ingredients are whole grain flours or at least brown rice flour, although brown rice often contains high levels arsenic so should also be limited.
- The myth of the “green puff.” Yes, the puffs your baby is enjoying are a lovely emerald color, bringing to mind broccoli, kale, and spinach. And indeed, veggie puffs do contain powdered broccoli, powdered kale, and/or powdered spinach. Unfortunately, these powders lack all the fibers of real veggies, and the nutrients from powdered vegetables may not be absorbed by the body the same way nutrients from whole vegetables are. Plus, as we’ve just established, the puff is comprised mostly of grains, often white ones, so the nutritional punch of the veggie powder is probably negligible.
- Lecithin. Puffs often contain lecithin made from either soy or sunflower seeds. Hexane, a petroleum-based neurotoxin and air pollutant, is commonly used to separate vegetable oil from seeds. Lecithin of all kinds should be avoided unless it is organic, which means it is entirely free of hexane residue. For this and other obvious reasons, always choose organic puffs.
- Sugar. Don’t just watch for the actual S-word–you’ll more likely see “evaporated cane syrup” or some such euphemism. Even “fruit juice concentrate,” a popular puff-sweetener, is only marginally better than regular old white sugar.
- Packaging. While puffs all now come in BPA-free canisters, all plastic potentially contains hormone-disrupting chemicals.
The Bottom Line on Puffs
Ideally, babies would eat only whole foods when they are learning to enjoy finger snacks–raspberries, small hunks of baked squash or banana, or cubes of avocado would all make good choices. Unfortunately, these foods are messy and not nearly as convenient as puffs, making them a lousy substitute when you need snacks for the car or park. My kids don’t like them, but freeze-dried fruits are a convenient and more healthful alternative to puffs, so give them a try. Also check out my company’s Chief Health Officer’s ever-popular blog post, 10 Ways to Get Your Kids Off Junk Food and Demanding Vegetables for inventive but easy healthful snack ideas. As for puffs, I’m not going to promise my babies won’t ever eat them, but I’ll no longer be fooled into thinking that a tube of extruded, mostly white grains tossed with sugar and a bit of kale powder, is as good for my 6-month-old as a nice steaming bowl of kale (was I the only one hoping that was the case?).