Parents are being warned that many popular baby food pouches actually contain more sugar than Coca-Cola.
Dentists have issued the warning amid an “epidemic” of tooth decay among young children.
A survey by the British Dental Association (BDA) of 109 pouches aimed at children under 12 months old found that over a quarter contained more sugar by volume than Coca-Cola.
Fruit-based pouches marketed as for infants as young as four months old contained sugar levels the equivalent of up to 150 per cent of the soft drink, according to the findings.
Almost 40 per cent of products surveyed were marketed at babies “four months plus” despite both UK and World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance recommending weaning from six months old.
The BDA said the findings also jarred with marketing claims that the products contained only “naturally occurring sugars” or “no added sugar”, or that they were “nutritionally approved” or in line with infants’ “nutritional and developmental needs”.
Baby food products found to be high in sugar
All products found to be high in sugar adopted so-called “halo” labelling, focusing on their “organic” status or that they were “high in fibre” or contained “one of your five a day”, potentially misleading parents into thinking they were making healthy choices, the report warned.
The BDA singled out “boutique” brands including market leaders Ella’s Kitchen and Annabel Karmel for appearing to have higher levels of sugar than traditional baby food brands or own-brand alternatives.
A spokeswoman for Ella’s Kitchen said: “At Ella’s Kitchen, we take infant nutrition very seriously and, since 2016, building on recommendations from Public Health England, we have been reducing the proportion of higher sugar fruits like bananas in our recipes, as well as introducing lower sugar fruits and 100 per cent vegetable pouches, bringing down sugar on average across the range by 20 per cent.
“Any new products aim to be 10 per cent less sugar than the range average as a commitment to ongoing sugar reduction in stage one recipes.”
A spokeswoman for Annabel Karmel explained: “Annabel Karmel’s organic purees are inspired by her much-loved homecooked recipes.
“They are specially designed for babies and contain 100 per cent fruit with no added salt or sugar. The limited sugar content comes from naturally occurring sugars found in the fruits used.”
Manufacturers said high levels of natural or locked-in sugar was inevitable with fruit-based pouches, but some brands managed to offer similar products containing around half the sugar of the worst offenders, the survey found.
BDA warn parents over infants directly eating from pouches
The BDA also warned that infants often sucked directly from the pouches, for the convenience of caregivers while on the move. This ensured the food spent more time in contact with baby teeth and increased the risk of erosion and decay.
The BDA noted a lack of clear messaging from manufacturers advising that infants should not consume the products directly from the pouch, with Annabel Karmel packaging and the brand’s website explicitly stating “eat straight from the pouch”.
The Ella’s Kitchen spokeswoman added: “We do not advise that little ones consume our purees directly from the pouch, instead recommending that they be consumed from a spoon and eaten as part of a varied diet including lots of homemade foods.”
Calls for changes to labelling of infant food
The Department of Health and Social Care is expected to consult imminently on the marketing and labelling of infant food.
Dentist leaders said the excessive levels of sugar in many infant pouches warranted action, including clearer “traffic light” labelling and potential expansion of the Sugar Levy to encourage reformulation.
Analysis by Action on Sugar last year of 73 baby and toddler sweet snacks such as rusks, biscuits, oat bars and puffs found that only six products (eight per cent) would be given a green (low) label for sugars.
BDA chairman Eddie Crouch said: “Disingenuous marketeers are giving parents the impression they are making a healthy choice with these pouches. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“Claims of ‘no added sugar’ are meaningless when mums and dads end up delivering the lion’s share of a can of Coke to their infants.
“Tooth decay is the number one reason for hospital admissions among young children, and sugar is driving this epidemic. These products sadly risk hooking the next generation before they can even walk.
“Ministers need to break the UK’s addiction. They must ensure sugar becomes the new tobacco, especially when it comes to our youngest patients.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman added: “We have challenged businesses to improve the nutritional content of baby food and drink, as our review in 2019 found inconsistencies between national recommendations and the ingredients and nutritional content of these products.”