Commercial baby foods have been slammed in a new report from Public Health England for encouraging high sugar intake in infants, misleading parents with health claims and setting children up for potential diet-related issues throughout their life.
The PHE study reviewed 1,120 baby products aimed at children up to the age of 3. It found that snacking foods account for more than one-third of the total market, sweet snacking is being encouraged and some snacks that are marketed as healthy are among those with the highest sugar content.
Sweet finger foods, including biscuits, wafers, puffs, bars, bites and fruit shapes, make up two-thirds of the total baby finger food market.
The highest sugar content is found in processed dried fruit products, which are often marketed as healthy due to their high fruit content. However, these products often contain free sugars with ingredients such as fruit juices, purees and concentrates, according to the report, and should not be aimed at children as suitable to eat between meals. Some sweet snacks contain as much sugar as confectionery.
Overall, the highest average sugar levels were seen in fruit- and vegetable-based products, clocking in at 47.5g per 100g, along with sweet finger foods with 17g per 100g.
Misleading product labelling and marketing is encouraging the introduction of solid food before official recommendations, which is around 6 months, said the review.
In fact, more than one in four baby products are targeted at 4-month-olds and more than one-third of baby meals are marketed at children under 6 months.
Nearly three-quarters of fruit-juice-based baby drinks are marketed at infants under 12 months, which is inconsistent with advice to offer only breast milk, infant formula or water as drinks between 6 and 12 months of age.
“The food industry could do more to support parents in making the best food choices for their children. Snacking and sweet foods are being promoted while parents are being encouraged to introduce solids earlier than recommended,” said Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE.
“Early years feeding is crucial in shaping future taste preferences and healthy habits. With children of all ages consuming too much sugar, action is needed to address these practices. The baby and toddler food industry must be careful not to break the trust of parents.”
Salt and packaging problems
Consumer research suggested that parents trusted food manufacturers to know what was best for their babies and putting products like drinks, desserts and snacks in the baby food aisle meant they were an appropriate part of the diet for infants and young children, found the study.
Turning to savoury finger foods, on average, products like puffs, crisps, biscuits, crackers and wafers contain the highest levels of salt per 100g across all product types. Other issues identified in the report include the fact that some product names don’t reflect the balance of ingredients and other do not always provide clear feeding instructions.
For example, around one-third of commercial baby foods and drinks are packaged in pouches, many of which have nozzles. There is concern that sucking from these pouches is harmful for developing teeth and, although some businesses provide back-of-pack or website advice on how to feed these products (from a spoon), this is not consistent across the market.
A call for change
The review is pushing for the food industry and government to make changes to baby products.
Its recommendations include improving the nutrient content of products; ensuring clear, consistent and honest labelling and marketing of products; and restricting the use of implied health claims on baby food product. It also wants products high in sugars labelled as not being suitable for eating between meals.
Registered nutritionist Dr. Laura Wyness believes clearer and more honest labelling is required.
“Industry need to ensure their marketing messages are more consistent with national infant feeding advice and the language they use does not mislead consumers or overestimate the healthiness of their product,” she says.
“PHE found that the sugar levels of some products, including those marketed as ‘healthy snacks’ are worryingly high. Two-thirds of commercial baby finger foods are sweet. Some products that sound savoury have a fruit as the main ingredient. The product name should reflect the range and balance of ingredients used.”
Dr Wyness adds that industry should provide products that are low in sugars and that offer different flavours.
“Although babies have a preference for sweet tastes, it is important they are introduced to a variety of flavours, including bitter-tasting foods such as broccoli and spinach, from a young age.”
The report noted that in England nearly a quarter of children aged 4 to 5 years are overweight or obese, and a similar proportion have tooth decay by the age of 5.
“Our children are starting off on the wrong trajectory for their future wellbeing,” it said.
What are parents feeding their children?
- When babies were aged 4 to 6 months, mothers were most likely to have given them fruit or vegetables on the previous day (46%), compared to ready-made baby foods (38%), baby rice (31%) and home-made foods (28%).
- At 8 to 10 months, fruit and vegetables were still a large proportion of babies’ daily diets (77% of mothers gave these on the previous day), but mothers were much more likely to be giving their babies home-made foods (70%) than ready-made baby foods (44%).
- Baby rice was the most common type of food mothers used when first introducing their baby to solids (57%). Other types of food were mentioned by relatively low proportions: 12% first gave ready-made baby food, 11% gave home-made foods and 10% gave rusks.
- The use of ready-made foods was most common between 5 and 10 months, ranging from 42% of babies aged 5 to 7 months, through 45% of those aged 8 to 10 months, dropping to 31% of those aged 10 months or older.
- Evidence showed that usage of commercial infant and baby foods and drinks peaked in infants aged 6 to 12 months, with 40-60% of these infants consuming commercial foods.
The baby food market according to Kantar
- Baby meals make up three-quarters (76%) of all commercial baby food and drink products, with finger foods at 22% and drinks at 2%.
- Nearly half of baby meals and one-third of all products are main meals, and a quarter are fruit- or vegetable-based first foods.
- Desserts and breakfasts make up 14% of baby meals and 11% of products overall respectively. Most desserts are marketed at babies under 10 months of age and many contain ingredients other than fruit or unsweetened yoghurt.
- Sweet finger foods make up nearly half of all baby finger food products and 10% of products overall.
- Six out of 10 portions of commercial baby foods purchased are finger foods.
- Baby meals make up the greatest proportion of the market in terms of number of products (76%), volume sales (81%) and sales spend (64%).
- Baby finger foods account for around one-fifth of products and one-third of sales spend, but three-fifths of portions purchased.
- Baby finger foods have been the growth driver in the baby food and drink market in recent years, with spend increasing from £61m in 2014 to £101m in 2018.
- Manufacturer-branded products hold a much greater share of the commercial baby food and drink market than retailer own brand products: 88% compared with 12%.