(Look for Maia’s blog entry on puffs on Dr. Frank Lipmans’s website in March 2014.)
For better or worse, Cheerios have long been a popular first finger food for babies; their size and shape make them a perfect tool 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 then an even bigger genius made an organic variety, another genius threw in some veggie powders, and boom: a whole generation of kids will never hold a Cheerio between thumb and forefinger.
Maia’s four-year-old, Felix, has never had Cheerios, but ate plenty of puffs as a baby. “Puff” was Maia’s nephew, Theo’s, first word. At the time of this writing, Maia’s second baby, Wolf, is just starting on solids. And so we set out to get to learn more about puffs.
While we all 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?
The big problem with puffs is this: they are all produced through a process called extrusion. Extrusion involves mixing grains with water in a device called an “extruder,” which, through high temperatures and pressure, processes the grains through a tiny hole to give them the desired shape (in this case, a puff like the ones you see to the right). This manufacturing 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. Because of this, it’s impossible to call any puffs “good” snacks, but below, under the “Good Stuff,” we will give you an option that’s the best of the worst. 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. Opt for varieties whose first few ingredients are whole grain flours or at least brown rice flour, although even organic brown rice often contains high levels arsenic so should be limited.
The myth of the “green puff”: Yes, the puff your baby is enjoying is a lovely emerald color, making you think it’s full of broccoli and kale. And indeed, these puffs do contain powdered vegetables, which unfortunately lack all the fibers of real veggies and which the body may not absorb in the same way it does real veggies. Plus, 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 that carries a Skin Deep score of 9) is commonly used to separate vegetable oil from seeds, including soybeans and sunflower seeds. Lecithins of all kinds should be avoided unless they are organic, which means they are entirely free of hexane residue. For this and other reasons, always choose organic puffs.
Natural flavor. At Gimme the Good Stuff, we are not sold on the safety of “natural flavor,” since natural flavors are made in labs using biotechnology to isolate certain tastes, and there is little detail on or regulation over what qualifies as “natural.”
Sugar. Don’t just watch for the actual S-word–you’ll more likely see “evaporated cane syrup.” Even “fruit juice concentrate” is only marginally better than regular old white sugar. Unfortunately, the majority of snacks marketed for very young children contain too much sugar, and most brands of puffs are no exception.
Packaging. While puffs all come in BPA-free packaging these days, 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. Our recommendation is that if you give your baby any puffs, do so knowing that they’re a treat rather than a healthful meal. At the same time, there are certainly worse snacks on the market than puffs, particularly if you choose the lone Good Stuff brand, below (hint: it’s Happy Baby).
Check out Suzanne’s (our Chief Health Officer) ever-popular blog post, 10 Ways to Get Your Kids Off Junk Food and Demanding Vegetables for healthy snack ideas. These naturally dried fruits are another more healthful alternative to puffs.
The Good Stuff
If you’re like Maia, you recognize that puffs aren’t the best thing for your baby, and yet you still find yourself needing a convenient finger food in a pinch. In that case, Happy Baby provides the best option. Their puffs contain half of the sugar (in the form of fruit juice concentrate) than other puffs on the market. Unlike other brands, brown rice flour is the first ingredient in Happy Baby puffs, although white rice flour is a close second. Happy Baby puffs cost around $4 a tub in retail stores and you can get a pack of 6 for $15 on Amazon.
The Bad Stuff
Parent’s Choice Little Puffs advertise that their puffs are made from “high quality ingredients.” In addition to a heavy dose of sugar, these puffs also contain “natural flavoring,” a term over which there is little insufficient regulation. Some varieties include “caramel coloring,” which has been linked to hypertension.
The Sneaky Stuff
Plum Organics Super Puffs are organic and have no artificial flavors, coloring or sweeteners, and in general Plum is a a responsible, reliable company that is environmentally conscious. But the third ingredient listed in these puffs is organic dried cane syrup: they contain .5 more grams of sugar per serving than Happy Baby Puffs. The first ingredient in many puffs is white rice flour, and they contain the dubious “natural flavors.”
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