The women themselves are interested in doing it. Solid food seems modern, it seems civilized, as opposed to liquid formula and breastfeeding which is characterized as primitive and uncivilized in the mid-20th century.
Beck: The later studies that said you shouldn’t feed these to young babies, what were their reasons?
Bentley: This happened so dramatically between World War II and the 1960s. The war is over, there’s amazing prevalence of these products, and a lot of postwar wealth, so people are using these products. Then, doctors and researchers begin to test these things, not only test the ages at which foods are being introduced, but also what’s in the foods that the babies are eating. Canned baby foods at mid-century are prepared the same way that all canned foods are prepared, with salt, with sugar, sometimes nitrites, MSG, preservatives, and thickener. This is how canned food is made. It’s just considered normal. Then studies come out that show that maybe high levels of salt aren’t great in adult diets, let alone children’s diets. Likewise with sugar. You’re getting the beginnings of studies showing that feeding infants solid food early on may lead to obesity later.
Beck: What cultural factors contributed to commercialized baby food’s popularity in the post World War II era?
Bentley: Well the United States emerges from WWII as one of the two superpowers—economically, culturally, diplomatically, politically. There’s enormous wealth, there’s the baby boom, and the rise of the suburbs, and commercial baby food is doing incredibly well, it’s the golden age of commercial baby food, really. About 90 percent of American infants are fed baby food. There’s this sense in the culture that we are a superpower, and commercial baby food is emblematic of that society that we are. It’s modern, it’s abundant, it’s scientific, it’s sterile. And by contrast, breastfeeding rates have been going down. They drop to incredibly low levels by the 60s and 70s. There’s this sense that breastfeeding is primitive, we don’t need to do it anymore, we can create formulas that are better than breastfeeding. Moreover, the breast becomes very sexualized, and it’s seen as something that’s private. And so formula, as well as commercial solid food, just seemed more appropriate to a rich and powerful country, post-war.
Beck: So at what point did people start to question whether it was a good idea to feed babies this stuff, and why did they turn on it?
Bentley: There were always a few lone voices in the wilderness pointing out that maybe this wasn’t a great thing. But by and large nobody really thought there was a problem with baby food at mid-century.
Then you get to the 70s, the counterculture years where everything is in question—science, institutions, government, authority. There’s the rise of the consumer movement, in which Ralph Nader and others are pressing the government to regulate companies for safety and health. And so you get the consumer backlash against the potential dangers of baby food, whether it’s unsafe jars that are out of date, or the ingredients inside them. The baby-food makers resist, some of them resist more than others, but they by and large clean up their acts. They do away with baby-food desserts, which used to be a very prevalent category, and many of them take the salt out of their products.