We just released a short compilation of images on the Facebook page that demonstrates the amount of sugar in some of our well known baby foods and snacks. We have designed the comparison to be shocking. We wanted to really hammer home the visual that some of the foods that we turn to first to introduce our kids to solid foods are full of sugar.
Early childhood is a critical time for the development of food preference, and dietary patterns. Unfortunately in the UK and Ireland, diets are rarely in line with recommendations.
A good approach might be to follow the current PHE guidelines as follows;
Most infants should not start solid foods until 6 months unless in close consultation with their GP.
Breast milk, formula or water only fluids before 12 months.
A wide range of solid foods introduced in an age appropriate manner from 6 months.
Flavour, and texture diversity should increase with age.
For prevention of Tooth decay from 6 month to 3 years old;
From 6 months introduce a free-flowing cup, and from 12 months discourage the bottle.
Sugar should not be added to babies food or bottle.
Frequency of sugary snacks and drinks should be limited.
Sugar free medicines should be used if required.
Only milk or water should be drunk between meals.
Guidance is also that when baby is introduced to foods initially from 6 months, they should ideally be single fruits or vegetables, not blends of mixed fruits and vegetables. The NHS Start4Life website has brilliant guidance on the types of recipes that can work well and the method that should help wean in a safe manner, such as the introduction of less sweet vegetables such as broccoli or spinach instead of always opting for carrot and sweet potato which are higher in naturally occurring sugars.
So what can we find our own shelves?
Jars of ready-made baby food.
These are a commonly seen example of the fruit
purée on the market, and as we have already seen the guidelines are that these kinds of foods should be introduced from 6 months, and the feeling of dietitians is that the stating from 4 months or 4-6 months suggest that this is a safe start time. This is potentially hazardous if baby isn't ready and again the Start4Life website gives great guidance around safe weaning to avoid allergies and choking hazards.
Also we see a combination of flavours, where the guidance from health authorities is to stick to single flavours.
Pouched Baby Food.
These pouches are problematic for a few reasons, they are quite large portions, and particularly those aimed at 4-6 months (again no real need for baby food marketed at 4 months old) could constitute 3 meals in one pouch, but this is often not clear from the packaging and the pouches are often seen dispensed directly from the packet into babies mouth.
There is little guidance on the packet instructing you on their use and that they must be dispensed onto a spoon to encourage normal healthy eating habits and to help control portion size. If there is it is tiny small print.
Finger food for babies and toddlers.
Aside from the greenery and nice nature pictures on the packet creating the illusion of health and outdoors, these are in every way identical to the sort of biscuits we can eat as adults. Snacks for babies and toddlers are designed to be mini-meals providing essential nutrients, and these products which are extraordinarily high in sugars do not meet any of the criteria. The same would go for high added salt products such as puffs and crisps designed for older children, they just don't provide any useful nutrition. They also contain an extraordinary amount of sugar.
Flavoured water or juice for babies.
Babies are pretty happy drinking water and milk, and there is little need to introduce the sugars in this to the diet unnecessarily. In fact from 1 year old until 5 years of age the only juice that can be given is with a meal and a 1 in 10 ration of juice:water. Very few of the baby drinks on the market meet these guidelines and can be up to 50% juice and an incredible source of sugar.
1 in 4 drinks aimed at babies target those aged under 6 months.
Another key finding from our market research was with regards to the misleading labeling. This is a marketing tactic seen across all aspects of the food industry to deceive consumers, and this was no different products that were advertised as being "Broccoli, Pears and Peas" sound to the consumer like a more savoury choice, not likely as sweet as the fruit purée and a suitable main meal. When you read the ingredient though the name is totally misleading containing 79% pears, 14% peas and only 11% broccoli. They are also covered in various slogans and health buzz words that have been shown to influence parents into thinking they are making healthy choices. Phrases that we identified that are subjective and manipulative include;
No added sugar
Only naturally occurring sugars
Good source of Vitamin C
One product claims "1 of 5 a day; packed with real fruit; no preservatives" and then is 67% sugar.
When a company wants to make a savoury pouch based on say spinach, but they know there is a chance that some children might not be as keen on them as they aren't as sweet, they will add sweeter vegetables. Suddenly instead of a pouch of spinach we know have carrot and sweet potato in there as well.
All of these products can be useful in certain situations (Probably not the gummies or the fruit juice) on the rare occasion when they are needed for convenience, but the should not be relied upon, As the child ages some of the more savoury dishes such as cottage pie and spaghetti are less of an issue for us as dentists regarding the sugar content, but then the hidden salt levels become an issue this can be hugely problematic for the developing kidneys and will also help to contribute to issues with childhood obesity, blood pressure and cardiac problems as they age.
Finger foods as snacks for babies and toddlers are designed to help them with oral/motor skills and also to allow them the freedom to explore tastes, smells and textures themselves (under close supervision) to begin their own journey with food. Unfortunately this can have some unhelpful side effects. As the photos below of ours show, it can get everywhere.
Much the same as you wouldn't routinely use ready-meals or microwave meals for yourself, we should also not become reliant on the convenience of these baby microwave meals. We should also be putting pressure on these companies to be more upfront about what they are feeding us as a nation, and restrict them from using misleading marketing to unfairly influence your natural parental instinct to do what is best for your kids.
Even in the supermarkets, the shops throw completely inappropriate snacks together with meals for babies just because they are designed for the same age group, dried fruit are not suitable snacks between meals due to the sticky and highly sugary nature of them. Salty crisps/puffs/melts are again not suitable for young people where the salt levels are much too high for them.
Even some of the brand names are designed (at great expense) to influence you as you are browsing the childcare isle, Goodies, Kiddylicious, Organix.
There are loads of great recipe ideas and tips on weaning on the HSE website
Any other questions about baby food, weaning and food safety can be answered by this great booklet from the HSE and Healthy Ireland
Also, apologies to Coco Pops, but you are still the most recognisable standard in the dental profession for what not to be when it comes to nutrition for children.