Was Gerber Cheating Our Babies?

What About the Elderly?
Charles R. Attwood, M.D., F.A.A.P.

he young mother had no idea that the jar of baby food she had just given her infant wasn't all fruit. Nothing on the label had shown that the bananas were only 50 percent of the feeding. The rest was added water, sugar, and modified starch (which has been given the name, Tapioca). The product, not only bananas, but dozens of other fruits and vegetables, sold by Gerber -- a brand widely advertised as being recommended by 4 out of 5 pediatricians -- has dominated the shelf-space in food stores for decades. Comparable foods manufactured by Beech-Nut, Earth's Best, and even Gerber's own first stage products -- those suggested for infants under 6 months of age -- contain 100 percent fruits or vegetables.

This unbelievable "baby cheating" practice had been the standard at Gerber, I learned from The Center For Science In The Public Interest (CSPI), for several generations, but the company has consistently reassured both parents and pediatricians that its products are the most nutritious money can buy. As for the claim that it's recommended by 4 out of 5 pediatricians, CSPI found that the survey quoted showed something else entirely. Only 1 in 5 pediatricians recommend any specific brand of baby food. Of those who do, 4 of 5 recommended Gerber, but overall only about 16 percent of pediatricians recommended Gerber. The company has consistently failed to make this clear, despite persistent complaints to the Federal Trade Commission.

Since whole fruits and vegetables are children's principal sources for thousands of phytochemicals, both known and unknown, all of which necessarily work in concert to prevent chronic degenerative diseases, such as heart disease and many cancers, I thought it was important that the consumer know when they are getting whole, not diluted, foods. Fiber, both soluble and insoluble, is another important ingredient that is greatly diminished in these diluted products. The ingredients section of the label should show percentages of the primary foods contained in the jars, but Gerber has resisted this for many years. The obvious reason, in my opinion -- that diluted food can be sold for less -- is not the reason given by Gerber. They've insisted that it's done to enhance taste. Yet, babies have found other undiluted brands and homemade baby food from a blender just as tasty.

Heinz, the second largest producer of baby foods is less expensive, according to Consumer Reports in their September 96 issue, and "just as nutritious." That's because, says the CSPI, they contain "relatively little food." The report fails to tell the reader that the Heinz counterpart of Gerber's Bananas with Tapioca is only about 25 percent bananas. And like Gerber, many of their other products also contain large amounts of these fillers.

In January, 1996, CSPI's director, Michael Jacobson and I co-signed a letter to 20,000 pediatricians, pointing out this dilution of baby foods, using the Gerber banana product as an example. We followed this with a national press conference in Washington, DC. Gerber's response to this: "Irresponsible and Slanderous!" However, within a few weeks the FDA had received an unprecedented 1,500 letters from pediatricians throughout the country, all expressing their concern for the Gerber practice of diluting baby foods.

Gerber still insisted that the added modified starch and sugar were necessary to enhance the taste. But surprisingly, a short time later the CSPI was notified that the company would no longer be diluting their their second and third stage fruits and vegetables. Their new labels: 100% Fruit. 100% Vegetables. Why this sudden change? Advertising Age magazine, reported that Gerber's share of the U.S. market had dropped from 80 percent to 65 percent during the few months following our press conference. Not unexpectedly, within the next few weeks Heinz announced similar changes. Also the "4 out of 5 pediatricians" claim will probably be discontinued, since it was considered misleading by the Federal Trade Commission.

According to the CSPI, "We have won!" I agree, a giant company -- Gerber is a division of Sandoz -- taken a first step to a more healthful and honest policy, despite the obvious cost.

I found this even more significant when I realized that baby food isn't for babies alone. It's also used regularly to sustain the nutritional needs of thousands of older individuals. Gerber spokesperson, Barbara Ivans, admits that their baby food is often used by the elderly, either in nursing homes or by both the elderly and disabled who are cared for at home. They seem to prefer the taste over that of pureed food prepared by institutions, despite it's greater expense, according to Neva Linscombe, director of the Landmark Nursing Home in Crowley, Louisiana. This is, apparently, the enhanced Gerber taste accomplished by the sugar and starch fillers. Already at high risk for heart disease, cancer, and constipation, these individuals especially need the nutrients and fiber of whole foods.

The real issue here is the continued inadequate labeling requirements of the FDA, despite its greatly improved revisions mandated by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. The new labels, appearing in May, 1994, still fail to reveal the ingredient amounts. If the main ingredients of food included their percentages, there would be no Gerber or Heinz problem. But presently, whether the consumer is concerned about whole food ingredients or something detrimental to their health, such as hydrogenated oils, they have no way of knowing how much is present. So far, unfortunately, the FDA has remained clearly on the side of the food processors.

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