Baby food ingredients vary primarily based on the age of the child for which the food is intended and whether it is a food that is stored wet or dry. Other significant factors affecting the ingredients include if it is a commercial product that is widely distributed versus an organic brand of baby food with a regional product run. In traditional supermarket brands, baby food ingredients include some mixture of fruits and vegetables along with added sugar compounds like maltodextrin, starches, and fixative agents or gums. While all types of baby food are also supposed to be free of harmful compounds, many contain pesticide residues and genetically-modified food ingredients as well.
Initially, baby food for infants aged four months has little variety and consists of dried rice that is made to be mixed with milk or water. This supplements baby formula or breast milk until the age of six months, when babies can eat a variety of pureed and mashed foods, which introduces wet canned or jarred baby food into the diet. Wet foods often contain up to 40% of starch compounds, which are used to bind ingredients together and thicken them. The starch and added sugar, at almost 50% of the baby food ingredients in some jars, makes the product less expensive to manufacture and it can have a more filling effect for the child because starch tends to soak up water and bind to it.
Organic labels tend to offer healthy baby food that lacks any of the questionable ingredients in large commercial runs of the product. The ingredients list for organic foods includes organic fruits, vegetables, and grains, as well as organically-fed meat. No added sugar or artificial ingredients are claimed to be present, and the manufacturers state that the entire contents are 100% natural. This means that they are free of pesticide and fertilizer residues, as well as preservatives and genetically-modified grains or other altered baby food ingredients. Just because a baby food label is promoted as organic, however, does not mean that it is entirely healthy, as organic baby food ingredients often include added organic sugars to enhance flavor and reduce cost.
Fruit juice is used as a common ingredient in baby food because it appears healthy on labels and is an inexpensive way of adding sugar to the product. Pesticide residues, while small, can also be present in many baby foods despite government restrictions on the limits allowed. A 2010 investigation of baby food ingredients in Australia also found that a US manufacturer was including genetically-modified soy at levels of 0.2% by volume. While this is within legal limits, a Russian study has shown that such concentrations in the diet of rats and hamsters has caused damage to organs like the liver and kidneys and harmed reproductive health. Since food labeling laws were rather lax in Australia as of 2010, it is believed that multi-national food producers have used such loopholes as an opportunity to sell products there that would be banned elsewhere.
Baby food ingredients for products marketed to children older than six months have been shown to contain large amounts of thickening agents in the US. These agents include flour and a variety of starch compounds which are fillers used to lower the cost of adding more real fruits and vegetables to the products. The baby food market in the US is estimated at a size of $1,250,000,000 US Dollars (USD) a year and growing, because American children are fed far more jarred baby food than homemade food that is the focus in other nations. An infant in the US is expected to consume 600 jars of baby food by age one versus 240 jars for the typical European child by the same age and only 12 jars for a child in an eastern European nation like Poland.