Monday, August 22, 2011

The Science of Baby Snacks

As Jack's moving away from baby-dom and into toddlerhood, his eating habits are changing.  He loves snacks!  He’s now able to let us know when he wants said snacks with a wonderful combination of cuteness and annoying whining.  He’ll grab a bag of snacks out of his diaper bag or on the counter, and bring them over to us letting us know he’s hungry.  Or, he’ll just sit there and whine until we figure out what he wants.  He’s recently perfected the ‘pincher’ grab, which allows him much more freedom in picking up those snacks between his thumb and fingers, and putting them into his mouth.  Before, it was sort of a full-hand grab and stuff, and he could really only grab big things. The pincher grab opens up a world of snacking opportunities, and boy does Jack love it!  So, we’re experimenting with different sorts of snacks and trying to pay attention to their nutritional quality. 

Most of you probably know that the all-time favorite most popular toddler snack seems to be Cheerios, followed closely behind by Goldfish (they even make whole-grain Goldfish now, so that’s good!).  At least that’s what 95% of the toddlers we see in the park are snacking on.  But Gerber (a subsidiary of Nestle), and maker of all things baby food, is really trying to grab a piece of the toddler-snack market.  Perusing through the baby isle at the grocery store, we see all of these lovely types of snacks produced by Gerber promoting “Start Healthy, Stay Healthy” and “Supports Healthy Growth and Development”.  Sweet, we thought.  Healthy snacks!  Well, don’t look too closely at the ingredients.  For example, the ‘Yogurt Melts’ look healthy, but have sugar as the second ingredient, and the ‘Lil Crunchies’ have 50 mg of Sodium per serving!  

Gerber’s snacks tell us right on the box, “as your baby grows into toddlerhood, about 25% of his calories will come from snacks”.  So, what are we going to do, we’re stuck with these sugary, salty snacks.  That’s all there is, right?  How do we raise a healthy, good-eating baby, and where can we find good snacks that he likes.  Well, we’ve been testing out various snacks, and conducting scientific studies (we are scientists after all), and here’s what we’ve concluded:

We started by exploring all of the various snacks on the market; those made exclusively for babies (mostly Gerber and the organic/hip baby-food companies trying to chip away at that market) and those more traditional snacky foods (e.g., Cheerios).  Before Jack even got the opportunity to lend his opinion, we eliminated most of the really nasty sugary and salty things.  One snack I’m ashamed to admit we tried was Gerber’s ‘meat sticks’.  Yep, seriously….these little sticks of meat stored in a congealed oily substance the consistency of snot. Grabbing them out of the snot felt more like baiting a fishing hook than feeding a baby, and thankfully, Jack hated them, so we never have to buy them again.

From an array of snacks, Jack’s top four favorites seemed to be: Cheerios, Goldfish, Gerber Graduates ‘Lil Crunchers’ (Garden Tomato version)—which I’ll hereafter refer to as ‘Baby Cheetos’ (which is what they look, smell and taste like), and a darkhorse challenger ‘Just Peas’ freeze-dried peas (seriously, he loves them! And so does his mom) that we found in the produce aisle at Whole Foods. 

Weeks of preliminary data suggested that while Goldfish and Cheerios make great snacks, especially when on the go, the Baby Cheetos and Just Peas seem to be the two favorites.  Today, I decided to do the definitive test to see which was the best baby snack: 

In this corner, we have the good-for-you-wholesome snacks made with pure peas, and nothing else.  No Genetic modifications and Organic--which is good because we don’t want Jack to become a mutant and grow a tail or destroy the city with his fire breath!  Just Peas….yaaahhhahhahhh

And, in this corner, we have the cheesy, salty goodness of mass-produced, melt-in-your-mouth, genetically modified corn and salt.  Boooooooo…..

(as an aside, any of you familiar with experimental design for diet choice will quickly recognize that an experiment replicated, no matter how many times, on only one baby is limited.  But, because Jack is the best baby in the world, I feel justified in claiming that whichever snack is favored is by definition the best baby-snack in the world).

We start with a warm-up of some baby-food from a jar, just to take the edge of hunger off, to cleanse the palette, and then get down to some real snacking.

Feeding Trial #1.  An equal volume of Baby Cheetos and Just Peas were put on each side of the tray and the baby was watched to observe preference and record any other behavior.

Winner, Just Peas

Feeding Trial # 2.  Same as above, but the locations of the snacks were switched to make sure there wasn’t any favoritism for right or left side.

Winner, Baby Cheetos

And, this was repeated 8 more times. 

Below are images from one such feeding trial where the results were rather easily discerned:

2 seconds into the trial

5 seconds into the trial

20 seconds into trial
The final tally was 2 for Just Peas, 8 for Baby Cheetos.  Using a standard Chi-square test (with an null expectation of equal preference), we get a chi-squared value of 3.6 with 1 degree of freedom, indicating that there is a 95% probability that Jack—and thus all snacking babies—significantly prefer Baby Cheetos over Just Peas.  So, there you have it.  Forget organic hippie foods, and put all your money in Corn futures and Nestle stock…this is gonna be big! 

With any scientific study, it is the prerogative of the author to speculate a bit why as to why the observed results may have occurred.  In this case, why do babies prefer the salty corny goodness of processed food over the plain and boring freeze-dried peas?  I think it’s an innate behavior preserved in our genetic material over the ages.  It’s evolution, plain and simple.  Human and CheetoWe’ve co-evolved with these cheesy snacks for millennia.  From the first humans hunting cheesy snacks on the African Savannah to modern times.  Using both fossil and genetic evidence, I’ve depicted how this long-standing relationship betwen hunter and hunted likely looked in the below illustration.  

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