Pre-mastication of baby's meal is nothing new to humanity. In fact, it is thought to have once been a critical complement to breast-feeding, providing a means to give infants large amounts of carbohydrates and proteins -- essentials that are often lacking in breast milk. However, the Internet has gone all aflutter over Alicia Silverstone's recent video in which she demonstrates this age-old baby-feeding strategy with her son, Bear Blu. While many negative reactions have simply been derived out of disgust, several publications, including The Huffington Post, have offered up brief statements of concern from health experts citing possibilities of disease transmission and other dangers resulting from pre-mastication.
The science exploring disease transmission through pre-mastication isn't exhaustive or complete, but there are recent studies of interest. Recently, efforts have gone into exploring pre-mastication as a possible risk in HIV transmission in Africa, with several documented cases seeming to occur after all alternative transmission routes were ruled out, with cases of transmission associated with blood contamination of the chewed food. Besides the above correlations to HIV, other studies have identified herpesvirus 8 and Epstein-Barr virus as being potentially transmitted orally from mother to child as well. But it is difficult to get a definitive answer and draw firm conclusions about the transmission dangers of pre-mastication, mostly because it is unethical to carry out well-controlled trials.
The problem with using these viral transmission correlations as a means to scare off any bold mothers considering pre-mastication is that most mothers will likely know if they are carriers of HIV or herpesvirus 8 long before they decide on a baby food type for their child. In fact, in a random sampling of blood bank units in the U.S., herpesvirus 8 was virtually non-existent in this country. And according to the National Center for Infectious Diseases, Epstein-Barr is one of the most common viruses in humans, with 90-95 percent of adults carrying it, as well as around half of 5 year-olds. Odds are, baby's getting Epstein-Barr sometime before she turns 30. A simple rule? If you're sick, don't spit in baby's mouth, and use common sense.
If you really want to be concerned about baby's health, wash your hands. Based on an extensive meta-analysis (a study in which data from hundreds of similar studies are pooled to increase statistical power,) exploring the role of hand hygiene on infectious disease transfer, Ms. Silverstone may be doing her child good by minimizing hand contact with the food! Effective hand washing reduced gastrointestinal illnesses by 31 percent and respiratory illnesses by 21 percent. And here's a fun factoid for all those advocates of antibacterial products: The study authors found no difference in disease prevention whether hand hygiene was accomplished using an antibacterial or a non-antibacterial soap.
Indeed, the experts criticizing Alicia Silverstone for her premastication practices as unsanitary do have a technical point, but because of the absence of extensive clinical studies, most of these facts are based on careful correlations documented in third-world countries with disease profiles that are much more dangerous than what we have here in the United States. Given the lack of concrete data, although precaution should be advised, we shouldn't let some experts use science as a veil to cover any potential personal disapproval and disgust towards pre-mastication, a practice to which we may owe our nutritional heritage.