by Beth Bradshaw | 30 July, 2019 1:16 pm
Over the past two decades the baby food market has undergone a transformation – with supermarket shelves full of pouches of puree and baby snacks with bright and clever graphics, suggesting both health promoting goodness and fun. With limited regulation on the composition, labelling and marketing of foods for infants and young children industry has created a parallel food universe for babies, mirroring adult targeted ultra-processed highly convenient packaged foods. How we feed our infants and young children matters: global and national recommendations around the world recommend 6 months exclusive breastfeeding followed by continued breastfeeding for at least one year and preferably two, with culturally appropriate, nutritious foods added from 6 months of age based on minimally processed and unprocessed foods.
The aim of introducing solids is to provide additional nutrients to the diet and to equip the young child with a knowledge of tastes and textures of foods to ensure a palate and acceptance of a wide variety of foods. What babies don’t need is sugary, wet, soft foods, unidentifiable by taste or texture, either spooned into their mouths or sucked through nozzles, disassociating the eating experience from any foods they will come across as they get older. Several recent reports have highlighted the high sugar content of baby foods and pureed fruits which have been ultra- macerated, heat treated and stored are high in the free sugars liberated almost entirely from the cell walls of the fruit used. Reports have outed the misleading and dishonest naming of products by manufacturers – products with names starting with broccoli, kale, spinach or cucumber – with highly attractive graphics of vegetables on the packaging, frequently have 70% or more of their content from pureed apple or pear. Processed dried fruit products made from pureed fruit re-constituted into sticks, rolls and child friendly shapes are advertised as ‘one of your 5 a day’ despite many having sugars contents well over 50%, and a small packet of these contributing anything between a half and almost 100% of a young child’s recommended sugar intake. As well as the overuse of pureed fruit in baby foods, some are also sweetened with fruit juice and some fruit juice based drinks are still marketed (again all the sugars in fruit juice are free sugars) and some foods have sugars directly added such as biscuits, puddings, wafers and cereal bars.
Infants under the age of 1 year do not need snack foods. The idea that a baby who has just learnt to sit up at 6 months of age should be instantly exposed to puffed snack foods in packets that offer no nutritional benefits or useful learning experience is not based on public health evidence but on slick marketing opportunism. Providing processed baby snacks is likely to increase their calorie intake unnecessarily and encourage a liking for the taste of ultra-processed foods. How children eat in their earliest years impacts on their development and long-term health and increasingly evidence suggests that these early years are also important in terms of overweight and obesity development. Whilst many researchers and NGO have been highlighting the dangers of the commercial baby food market for many years it is only recently that Public Health England have rallied to recommend product composition and labelling changes with action on baby food also highlighted in the recently published Prevention Green Paper and a toolkit has been created by WHO Europe to support member states in deciding which foods and drinks are suitable for our youngest citizens.
Helping a baby or young child to eat well does not need to be complicated or expensive.
Dr Helen Crawley is a registered public health nutritionist and dietitian with over 35 years experience in research, policy development and teaching. Helen is currently director of the public health nutrition charity First Steps Nutrition Trust which provides expert, evidence based resources on nutrition from pre-conception to five years. First Steps works with Unicef UK Baby Friendly and many other partners to ensure independent infant feeding information is available to health professionals. Helen sat on a WHO group looking at marketing of foods for infants and children, is a NICE clinical guidelines advisor and sits on The London Food Board
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