Salmon Baby Food: How to Get Kids to Eat Fish

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The developer of a new salmon baby food aims to incorporate nutrient-rich fish into children's diets

Here's an idea for parents: try giving your toddler a generous helping of pureed salmon for dinner tonight. Here's another idea: make it a point to have a dinner No. 2 on hand after your baby throws dinner No. 1 at your head.

If there's one hard rule of childhood, it's that kids don't like fish. Yes, they'll scarf down tuna salad and fish sticks, but even Mrs. Paul would tell you that doesn't count. However, Susan Brewer, a professor of food science at the University of Illinois, is convinced that babies' growing bodies — particularly their growing brains — need fish, and she's developed just the baby food that she thinks could pass their taste (and tolerance) test.

There are a lot of reasons all people are encouraged to eat fish at least twice a week, not the least being that it's low in fat and calories. Just as important, it's also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for brain and nerve development and help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. For adults, the biggest benefits are the cardiovascular ones, but for babies, the brain is still very much a work in progress, and omega-3s — particularly a type called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — are critical. A baby's brain, says Brewer, is 50% DHA, but a baby's liver is not good at synthesizing enough of it.

"If small children are going to get enough DHA," she says, "they're going to have to ingest it in their food."

Salmon, Brewer decided, is one of the best possible ways to provide it. Not only is the fish especially high in omega-3s, it's also mild tasting, which is part of what drives its global popularity so far up (and also, unfortunately, is pushing its wild populations so far down). Brewer developed a baby food that uses wild salmon caught late in the fish's life, a time when its flesh has begun to soften. She also adds salmon bonemeal and roe to her mix, which boosts nutrient level.

O.K., that sounds nasty, but when the raw ingredients are processed into baby food, the result is a product that, Brewer says, tastes more like salmon and cream-cheese dip than plain salmon. Parents (if not yet babies themselves) seem to agree. In one recent focus group, 81% of 107 parents said they liked the product and that they'd feed it to their babies.

Brewer believes that introducing fish early will help nurture not just babies' brains, but their palates too. One reason so many Americans have an aversion to fish is that it was not made part of their diets when their tastes were developing. Fish-based baby food already sells well in Asia, Italy and the U.K., in part because those countries include fish early and often in a child's life. One downside, of course, is sticker shock: wild salmon is pricey stuff even for adult connoisseurs; for babies, it might simply seem too extravagant. For now, however, Brewer is focusing on taste and nutrition; economies of scale may come later.

If American kids have not yet caught the fish habit, other news this week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides one more reason they should start. It's no secret that the obesity epidemic, which already claims 27% of U.S. adults (and two-thirds when you include those who are merely overweight), is hitting kids hard too, with up to 19% in the grade-school age group qualifying as obese. Now it appears that the federal school lunch program — one of the government's best-intentioned ideas and also one that, not incidentally, provides the only balanced meal some low-income kids get in a day — may be contributing to the problem.

According to new USDA data, students who eat a federally funded school lunch are likelier to be overweight than those who don't. But surprisingly, those who also get a federally funded school breakfast are at lower risk. The numbers were drawn from a survey of 13,500 kids, and while USDA officials are sure of the findings, they're not yet sure of what's behind them.

One likely source of trouble is surely that a portion of the federally funded lunch menu comes from government surplus, which means that some meals may be based as much on what's available as what's nutritious. That's not to say that plenty of federal lunches do not meet good fat, calorie and nutrition guidelines. But in those cases, the very wholesomeness of the meals may be turning kids off, pushing them to buy a la carte items (also known as junk food) that cafeterias sell as a badly needed source of income.

School breakfasts, by contrast, may not qualify as spa food, but they do include whole grains, fruits, fruit juices, cereal and yogurt, and they're served at a time of day when the French fryer and the pizza oven are not yet fired up and cranking out unhealthy alternatives. A child who eats well in the morning may be less likely to gorge at noon, providing a better nutritional balance overall.

Our 19% childhood obesity rate is not likely to return to the 5% rate of the 1970s overnight, but something clearly has to be done to start nudging it downward. Healthy meals for school children is one way; new foods — including seafood — for babies is another.