The wild success of baby-food pouches shows how we’ve embraced the idea of food as utility

Food pouches: maximizing efficiency, minimizing benefits
Food pouches: maximizing efficiency, minimizing benefits
Image: AP Photo / Nick Ut
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Anyone who has ever tried to feed a growing child vegetables can understand the appeal of the baby-food pouch. These popular plastic tubes, from which children can suck out a purée of organic fruits, veggies, and even beans, meat and grains, were introduced about a decade ago and now make up 25% of baby food sales in the United States, according to the New York Times.

But while food pouches can be a healthy on-the-go snack for children—and a lifesaver for busy working parents—there are some potential downsides. Developmental experts have been warning parents that they can be a gateway to bad long-term eating habits and routine overeating, as well harm children’s normal feeding and oral development.

The issues arise when the pouches become a replacement for sit-down meals and real food in general. That’s part of a broader trend that the New Yorker has called “the end of food“: From protein shakes and Soylent to cold-pressed juices and smoothie bars, corporations are investing heavily in attempting to convince a generation of adults that they can get all the nutrients they need in liquid form.

Why liquid diets are bad for kids

Pediatrician Natalie Muth tells the New York Times that pouches can encourage kids to develop bad long-term snacking habits. If parents offer up pouches too often as a substitute for whole foods or sit-down meals, kids may get used to eating constantly.

That’s bad news, considering the fact that most major health organizations have warned that children’s snacking habits are setting them up for obesity and poor health. Half of American kids now snack four times a day, according to a large-scale study published in 2010. On average, kids are consuming 600 calories a day from snacks, 168 more calories than they did in 1977.

In addition, pouches can be bad for kids’ development, as “simply sucking the goo out of a package skips out on a learning experience and a whole range of oral skills,” Dina Kulik, a doctor who focuses on children’s health and nutrition, writes in HuffPo. In the early years of a child’s life, eating is as much a learning experience as it is a biological need; kids learn how to eat, including how to chew or swallow, and develop habits for certain textures and tastes. If, during the first few years of life, kids get most of their nutrients from sucking on a plastic pouch, they might miss out on learning some crucial steps. That’s why nutritionists recommend that parents limit the use of food pouches to on-the-go snacks and, whenever possible, to feed kids real, whole foods during meal times.

Don’t give up on chewing

The rise of baby-food pouches is no accident. It’s of a piece with a broader late-capitalist cultural attitude that emphasizes efficiency over pleasure, and sees food and the act of eating as an impediment to a busy, productive life. One of the founders of Soylent, a synthetic food product that contains as many calories and nutrients as a complete meal, calls his product an “over-all food substitute”–”In theory, you could live on this entirely,” he told the New Yorker. Soylent markets the drink to Silicon Valley whiz kids by suggesting that sitting down to a steak dinner is basically a waste of time that would be better spent coding. Far more preferable to stay at the computer and gulp down meals in the form of a powdery substance described by some as having “a yeasty, comforting blandness about it.” (Yum.)

Nutritionists are still weighing the merits and drawbacks of Soylent and other liquid diet products. But some doctors think that, by eliminating solid foods, humans could miss out on phytochemicals, which come from plants, and provide important health benefits, like lower rates of diabetes. And liquid diets can encourage unhealthy relationships with food for people who use them as a short-term way of losing weight, not to mention the fact that many people find it hard to keep the weight off after the start eating normal food again. As Phillip M. Sinaikin, the author of After the Fast, writes, “A drug addict stands a better chance of recovery than a dieter.”

There are also benefits to sit-down, solid-food meals that can’t be quantified by measuring things like phytochemicals. Eating a meal with other people is a fundamentally human experience; as Louise O. Fresco writes in The Atlantic, “The human is the only animal species that surrounds its food with rituals.” But when meals are consumed on the go and in a tube, that side of the human experience is lost.

There’s no doubt that people today lead increasingly busy lives. That’s especially the case for parents. But the way we prioritize our time says a lot about who we are and what we value. Sit-down meals are a way to rebel against the way work encroaches upon our lives—and that’s yet another reason they’re worth making time for.