The sugar content of shop-bought baby food has been under the spotlight, with new regulations being put in place to protect infants. Registered dietitian and leading child nutritionist Dr Frankie Phillips talks us through the guidelines and offers advice for parents.
There have been a lot of stories in the news stemming from new reports published by Public Health England (PHE) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) on food and drink produced for babies and young children under the age of three. The focus has been primarily on the sugar content of commercial baby food, leading us to ask whether ready-made jars and pouches of baby food have a place in the diet of babies and young children.
Sugar in the diets of infants
Up to the age of six months, public health recommendations both in the UK and by the World Health Organisation (WHO) advise the best way to feed a baby is exclusive breastfeeding, and ideally to continue to the age of two years whilst adding in ‘complementary’ foods. Introducing complementary foods, or ‘weaning’ as it is commonly known, should start around six months. You should introduce a wide range of tastes and textures to your child by the age of 12 months so that they can enjoy eating family foods in the second year. If babies are exposed to different tastes from the beginning, they will be more willing to try other things. Studies now suggest that vegetables, including bitter flavours such as cabbage, spinach and broccoli, as well as sweeter vegetables like carrots and parsnips, should be the first tastes.
Whilst there is no guideline for the maximum amount of free sugars (the sugar added to foods in cooking or by manufacturers, or those in honey, molasses, syrups, fruit juice and juice concentrates) for children under four years old, it is recommended that free sugars should not be added to foods for babies and young children. It’s also suggested that the amount and frequency of consumption of sugary foods and drinks should be reduced and should not be provided between meals.
Why the fuss about sugar?
It is clear from national surveys that the types of foods consumed by young children are not, on average, in line with current recommendations; excess sugar intake is common. A poor diet in infancy and childhood, a critical time for establishing food preferences and dietary patterns, can have an impact not only in childhood but even into adult life. With nearly a quarter of UK children starting school overweight and obese and about the same number suffering with tooth decay, public health experts are concerned that children are starting off on the wrong trajectory for their future health.
Sugars are naturally present in a number of different foods, including milk, yogurt and fruit, and even vegetables. These foods have an important part to play in a healthy diet for all ages. The type of sugar present in unsweetened dairy foods is called lactose, and this isn’t thought to have any damaging effects on teeth. Sugars in fruit and vegetables aren’t added sugars and the vitamins, minerals and fibre in these foods make them good choices – but dried fruits need to be limited to mealtimes and juices and smoothies should also be kept to small amounts (150ml is a portion) at mealtimes only. The NHS has a guide to sugar in children's diets on their website.
Homemade vs. manufactured baby foods
There are strict guidelines on foods produced for babies and young children, but still many products are high in sugar, often from fruit juice concentrates or purées, and the sweetness may lead to a preference for sweet foods as children grow up.
The new reports have criticised commercial baby foods for having too much sugar, even in products that are savoury. WHO has called for a ban on sugars added to foods aimed at children under the age of three years, and a limit on fruit juice concentrate and fruit purée, particularly in savoury foods. On top of that, according to the Public Health England report, misleading product labelling and marketing is encouraging the introduction of solid food before official recommendations, which is around six months.
Homemade foods for babies do not need any added sugars or salt, and making things from ‘scratch’ gives control over what goes into them. Comparing homemade with manufactured baby food, a report from the First Steps Nutrition Trust said that manufactured versions lack the taste, texture and appearance of homemade versions. The PHE report found that even in products which were classed as main meals, there could be nearly 10% sugar content and the sugar content of a mixed fruit and vegetable dish was up to 19%. On the other hand, a homemade dish of mashed vegetables suitable for complementary feeding would be unlikely to have any fruit concentrate or purée added, so it would not only provide the true vegetable flavour, it would also contain no added sugars.
While ready-made baby foods are convenient to use sometimes, Public Health England are calling for manufacturers to improve the nutrient content of products, ensure the clear, consistent and honest labelling and marketing of products, and restrict the use of implied health claims on baby food products. It is also important that messages on products are consistent with current infant feeding advice.
Homemade weaning recipes for babies and young children can be made easily and often at low cost, and with these there are no ‘surprise’ ingredients bumping up the sugar content. Plus, the nutrient density is often higher. The flavours and textures are far more likely to be varied and so support the need for toddlers to become familiar with enjoying a wide range of meals.
Looking for more advice on child nutrition? Try our handy guides…
Dr Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and public health nutritionist specialising in infant and toddler nutrition with over 20 years' experience. This article was published on 29th July 2019.