Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Amy Bentley's "Inventing Baby Food"

Amy Bentley is Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity and the editor of A Cultural History of Food in the Modern Era.

Bentley applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet, and reported the following:
The consumption of food is an extraordinarily social activity, laden with complex and shifting layers of meaning. Not only what we eat, but how and why we eat, tell us much about society, history, cultural change, and humans’ views of themselves. What, when, and how we choose to feed infants and toddlers—the notion of “baby food” as opposed to “adult food,” whether these foods are nourishing and satisfying, as well as their appearance, texture, aroma, and taste—reveal how mass production, consumption, and advertising have shaped our thinking about infancy and our corresponding parenting philosophies and practices.

My book, Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet first establishes the relationship between solid food and the decline of breastfeeding; second, contends that mid-twentieth-century infant feeding practices helped shape the American industrial palate; and third, highlights the constant maternal anxieties over infant feeding even as advice and practices shift, throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

A key theme in the book is how being a mother and being a consumer are intertwined, and how shifting ideas about what is best for baby play out in different eras. In the 1950s, for example, being a “good mother” meant formula feeding one’s baby and starting her on solids between four and six weeks (vastly different from the advice and practice today). Yet by the 1970s, as a result of changing social mores, and scientific studies casting doubt on the healthfulness of commercial baby food, there emerged a consumer backlash against the big baby food companies. Page 99 of Inventing Baby Food discusses this backlash, and goes on to document Gerber’s attempt to quell the stream of unfavorable press about the quality of its products by holding a pro-baby food seminar at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. The passage below illustrates the fierce debate between the commercial producers of baby food and its critics:
“I would ask you,” began the new Gerber CEO John Swerth, “as you listen today and in the weeks to come, to evaluate the food industry information on the basis of fact rather than temporary popular, emotional appeal.” Journalist Raymond Sokolov noted the context in which the seminar was being held: “The press in months past had lapped up reports of dangerous food additives, of injuriously high salt levels in baby food and the perils of MSG. Gerber was trying to strike back at the ecology activists with some expert testimony of its own, most of it given either by Gerber employees, food industry professionals or residents of Michigan.”
Learn more about Inventing Baby Food at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue