Gabrielle Palmer is the author of the definitive guide to the political economy of breastfeeding: The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business. That book investigates the marketing of breastmilk substitutes and the consequences for mothers and babies. I reviewed the revised edition in 2010.
Palmer has now turned her attention to the topic of complementary foods - what we often call solid foods. In Complementary Feeding: Nutrition, Culture, and Politics, Palmer examines the history, politics, and ethics of these first non-milk foods.
This book is a slim volume based on a paper Palmer wrote for International Baby Food Action. It's not a practical guide to starting solid foods, but a book about young children and nutrition in a political context.
Palmer says that, while the debate is pretty well developed when it comes to breastfeeding and the marketing of its substitutes, "when it comes to the food that a child eats when she needs more than milk, the whole world is in a muddle." This book is intended to stimulate discussion, ideas, and further investigation.
Much of this book is about the problems of malnutrition in poverty and malnutrition in affluence, starting at the earliest stage in our experience with non-milk foods.
So, to dig in, here are the topics I found most interesting in this book:
Ready-to-use supplemental foods in developing countries. Developed to provide immediate nutrition to children in famines, ready-to-use theraputic/supplemental foods may soon be commercially produced and marketed on a broad scale. Sound familiar? Infant formula was first developed to aid orphans left without mothers' milk and eventually made its way to the marketplace. And we know how that ended up. So, how do we balance the gut-wrenchingly painful reality of millions hungry children with the risks to local agriculture, traditional foodways, and the ethics of dependence on private corporations for the most basic of human needs? Palmer writes, "Most humans are poor and by 2050 eight of nine billion will live in 'developing' countries. If such emergency provision is 'brought up to scale,' it will lead to a world where most children are fed with an industrialized mass-produced food...We have to meet the root causes head on."
The commercialization of early solid foods in developed countries. While there have been benefits to the commercial production of food, Palmer notes that "Today, even many priveleged human beings seem to believe that they cannot prepare their own children's food, that it must be made in a factory and that they must consult a ahealth professional about how to feed their children."
What did prehistoric toddler eat?* Since during nearly all of our history as a species we've been hunter-gatherers, our toddlers probably ate a lot of small mammals, insects, molluscs, shellfish, and other sea creatures, says Palmer. These would be the sources of iron and zinc after birth stores were depleted and breastmilk did not provide sufficient amounts. One mini-chapter title: "Why don't we give our babies molluscs and insects?"
There is plenty more here - this is a wonderfully dense book for its 100 page length: cultural and religious beliefs, processes for change, feeding 'local.' This book lives up to Palmer's trademark style - it's rigorous, passionate, thought-provoking, and intruiguing. I thoroughly enjoyed it and think you will, too.
* I was provided a review copy of this book from the publisher.
**Wait, is that redundant? Sorry, have a toddler in my house now.