Misleading nutrition in early years food and drink
New research by Action on Sugar (based at the Queen Mary University of London) has revealed worrying levels of sugars have been added unnecessarily to breakfast foods intended for babies and toddlers, with some containing four teaspoons of sugar per pouch. That’s despite government guidance that no added sugars, including those from processed fruit, should be consumed by children up to two years old.
To mark Sugar Awareness Week (November 14-20, 2022), Action on Sugar is calling on the complete removal of misleading nutrition and health claims on baby and toddler food and drink products and urging the new health minister, Steve Barclay, to publish and mandate the overdue Commercial baby food and drink guidelines. This will ensure dedicated baby aisles in supermarkets are a ‘safe space’ for parents.
The product survey, which analysed nearly 100 baby and toddler breakfast items sold in stores, found Kitchen’s ‘Banana, apple and blueberry baby rice’ had the highest sugar per serve, with 14.5g sugars per pouch (equivalent to four teaspoons sugar). This was followed by Ella’s Kitchen’s ‘Banana baby brekkie’ (13.6g per serve) and Ella’s Kitchen ‘Bananas, apricots and baby rice’ (13.5g Ella’s per serve).
What’s more, all products surveyed used nutrition or health claims on-pack and over three quarters (86 per cent) used a ‘no added sugar’ or ‘only naturally occurring sugars’ claim. However, many add sugars in the form of fruit/vegetable juices, concentrates, purees and powders (types of sugars that should be limited), misleading parents/carers into thinking that the product is healthier than it is. Little Freddie was the only brand responsibly choosing not to use these claims on its products.
Worryingly, Heinz By Nature ‘Creamed porridge’ uses plain sugar as an ingredient yet champions the claims ‘Only natural ingredients’ in addition to ‘sugar from a natural source’ which is not listed as a legally permitted claim.
Babease ‘Simply smooth avocado breakfast with yogurt, spinach and oats’ (3.5g sugars per serve) was the only product in this survey that used vegetables (no additional fruit) as a flavour for their product. This significantly reduces the overall sugars and introduces a less sweet flavour in a market that is otherwise saturated in sweet tasting breakfast products. In addition, by reducing the amount of processed fruit, flavour can be retained but sugars are drastically cut by half - Hipp Organic ‘Banana yogurt breakfast’ (sugar content 6.9g/100g) uses around 40 per cent less banana than Ella’s Kitchen ‘Banana baby brekkie’ (13.6g/100g).
Whilst these products are convenient for time-strapped parents and carers, findings from a public opinion poll by Action on Sugar, which sampled 1,004 parents with young children (aged between six to 36 months old) revealed two in three (65 per cent) parents are concerned about the levels of sugar in ready-made/pre-packaged baby and toddler breakfast items. The majority of parents (87 per cent) think it would be useful if the sugars added to baby and infant food, including that of processed fruit, was displayed on the front of the pack.
In 2016, the government challenged the food industry to reduce the overall sugar content of certain food categories by 20 per cent by 2020, but baby and toddler foods were not included in this programme. Instead, the government released a draft of Commercial baby food and drink guidelines for consultation in 2020 but did not then implement these guidelines. As a result, there is currently a gap in strict nutrition guidelines for these products, alongside worrying reports of high obesity prevalence and tooth decay in children starting school.
The data published on November 16, 2022, signals a clear need for robust measures to incentivise the food industry to reduce sugar across a wide range of products, including those marketed for babies and toddlers. With 91 per cent of parents supporting government action to make sure all food and drinks available in the baby aisle are nutritionally appropriate, the overdue government guidelines for baby and toddler products are needed now to guide manufacturers on how much sugar should be used.
Zoe Davies (ANutr), nutritionist at Action on Sugar says, "This survey has shown that there is an overwhelming number of products that taste too sweet and contain too much sugar, especially since this age group is recommended to avoid eating food with added sugar including sugar from fruit juices, concentrates and purees. Parents put their trust in these companies to produce healthy age-appropriate meals for their babies but are misled by clever marketing and misleading claims dominating product packaging. The baby aisle should be seen as a safe space for parents and carers to go to for food that is suitable - not only texture wise, but nutritionally as well.”
Hattie Burt (ANutr), policy and communications officer at Action on Sugar added, "Without clear guidance and regulation, the baby and infant food industry remains a Wild West, putting the health of our future generations at risk. It’s clear the food industry can do more to support parents in making the best food choices for their children, but they won’t do this without government leadership. We urge the health minister Steve Barclay to publish and mandate the Commercial baby food and drink guidelines without further delay.”
Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar said, “It’s a scandal that certain food companies are being allowed to peddle their high sugar products to parents with very young children – despite being aware that babies and toddlers shouldn’t be having any added at all. An unhealthy diet, high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, and low in fruit and vegetables, is the biggest cause of death and disability globally and costs the UK alone more than £100 billion annually. Our children should not have to suffer unnecessarily from this. Manufacturers should act responsibly and commit to reducing sugar, salt and calories instead of foisting unhealthy products with misleading nutrition claims upon well-meaning parents."
Linda Greenwall, founder of the Dental Wellness Trust said, “Added sugar has found its way into almost all food and the use of sugar as a means to calm, entertain or reward children has become normalised rather than consumed as an occasional treat. This excess leads to toothache and suffering – not just in children but in adults too which is why tooth decay remains one of the most widespread health problems – all of which is entirely preventable. For this to change, manufacturers need to dramatically reduce the unnecessary sugar added to their products and the government must help fund oral health prevention and tooth brushing programmes in schools and nurseries as an effective way of preventing this public health crisis from getting worse.”
Tips for healthier breakfast options in infants:
- Try to limit consumption of processed packaged baby and toddler foods as much as possible and choose low-sugar cereals/breakfast items not in the baby aisle. Porridge, low-sugar cereal and plain natural yoghurt are great options for babies, with chopped fruit for extra flavour and nutrients
- Breakfast doesn’t have to be sweet: try savoury options such as eggs and vegetables
- Even if ‘no added sugars’ is declared on the pack, watch out for ingredients such as fruit/vegetable juices, purees, concentrates and powders, which include the type of sugars harmful to health
- Seek advice from trusted sources such as the NHS, registered nutritionists and