November 4, 2019

For my first child, I would spend hours in the kitchen cooking up gourmet organic baby food. But when my other kids came along, the pre-packaged pouches were my very best friend.

In an ideal world, our kids would eat healthy home-cooked meals and fresh fruit and vegetables all the time.

But the reality is that pre-packaged infant and toddler foods are a convenient option when you’re time poor, travelling, or just can’t face another night of cooking. And on the face of it, they often appear to be healthy and full of goodness.

But a recent study has found many of these products contain significant amounts of sweet ingredients, which can have negative long-term effects on children.

Sweet ingredients found in infant and toddler foods

Cancer Council Victoria analysed 255 infant and toddler food products (excluding formula) available from Aldi, Coles and Woolworths. Almost half of them (116) were found to include fruit puree, with many also including other concentrated or processed forms of fruit such as:

– Fruit paste

– Dried fruit powder

– Fruit juice

– Fruit juice concentrate

– Dried fruit

– Fruit gel

Lots of Sugar

The study also found that 13 of the infant foods (for babies up to 12 months’ of age) contained either sugar or cane sugar, with two products containing other added sugars such as glucose or syrup.

Of the toddler foods, 27 products contained one or more combinations of sugar, cane sugar, coconut sugar, dried yoghurt or other sugars (such as glucose or syrup).

Some of these foods are even being marketed as suitable for babies as young as four months. Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that infants need breastmilk or formula as their main food until six months of age.

Why is fruit puree bad for infants and toddlers?

At a glance, you might assume the presence of fruit or fruit puree in these products means they’re good for kids.

But if infants and toddlers are given these foods on a regular basis, they may end up eating too much fruit and not enough other nutrient-rich foods, such as vegetables and foods that contain iron.

Being exposed only to sweet-tasting foods may also affect children’s taste preferences as they grow older.

“These are formative years in terms of taste preferences, so giving children these sweet foods will make them want more,” says Alison McAleese, healthy lifestyles campaign manager at Cancer Council Victoria. “And eating these products on a regular basis isn’t going to give them the nutrition that they need.”

Less Room for Healthy Foods

Nutrition expert Dr Rosemary Stanton agrees.

“Young children have high needs for nutrients to provide for growth and if they consume these products, they have less ‘room’ for healthy foods as their tummies are small,” she says.

“Almost every young child instinctively likes sweet foods (the lactose in breastmilk makes it quite sweet), but if they are constantly given sweet foods, they will not learn to appreciate (and like) the flavours of foods that are not sweet.”

Lead to Obesity

And preferencing unhealthy food choices over nutrient-rich options can lead to long-term health consequences such as obesity, tooth decay and iron deficiency.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends a wide range of nutritious foods from all five food groups for healthy development in toddlers and babies aged six months and older.

Vegetable products still contain fruit puree

The study also found that some products may appear to be savoury, but contain fruit or fruit puree. For example, Heinz Pumpkin, Corn, Chicken and Rice also includes six percent apple, while Bellamy’s Organic spring vegetable macaroni includes seven percent apple puree.

“Parents know that it can be challenging to give their kids savoury foods, so these are an attractive option,” says McAleese. “But there’s more fruit in these products than most people realise, which is again helping children preference this sweet taste.”

“The use of fruit purees or concentrated fruit in any form is just another way of giving kids sugar,” says Stanton. “Why add sweet flavour to savoury foods? Parents need to know that concentrated fruit is almost always just a form of sugar. Regular sugar is just concentrated cane juice!”

Food-maker ignoring labelling requirement

Although the presence of these sweet ingredients (whether sugar or a fruit puree) may be unnecessary, it doesn’t contradict the Australian Food Standards Code. However, according to the code, food for infants (‘infant’ meaning a person under 12 months of age) must be labelled as “sweetened” if the added sugar content is more than 4g per 100g.

Yet the Cancer Council found that the infant product with the highest amount of sugar – Keep it Cleaner Bambini Bars, Oats and Superberry 10+ months, with a whopping 40.4g per 100g – didn’t state ‘sweetened’ on the packaging.

Products marketed to children aged 12 months and over don’t have to comply with this standard.

How to buy healthier packaged infant and toddler food

If you do decide to buy one of these products, Stanton recommends parents read the ingredients list. “There should be no added sugars (including fruit juice or fruit juice concentrate) or salt,” she says.

McAleese also stresses the importance of reading the ingredients list.

“Parents should be aware that the front of the pack doesn’t always tell the whole story,” she says.

Don’t Use Squeezies

Stanton also advises against giving your child food in a squeeze pouch as it means the child is fed quickly, which doesn’t give the stomach time to signal to the brain that it’s full.

“Fast feeding can destroy an infant’s natural ability to ‘play’ with food (experiencing its texture as well as its flavour) and get it into their mouth quite slowly,” she says.

“Their natural inclinations to touch food and put it into their mouth ensures they don’t over-consume food. Squeeze pouches also make it easier for parents to feed young infants at a time when they do not need these foods.”

Why we need stronger added sugar labelling

Reading food labels is the best way to know how healthy a product is for young children and the entire family.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy because Australia doesn’t regulate labelling of added sugar.

Currently, nutrition information panels only list the amount of total sugar in a product, instead of differentiating between naturally occuring intrinsic sugars (nutrient-rich foods such as milk and intact fruit and vegetables) and added sugars with little or no beneficial nutrients.

This means the current Health Star Rating system treats two products with 20g total sugar the same, even if one product contains 99% added sugar while the other contains mostly intrinsic sugar.

It’s important that children of all ages eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and Health Star Ratings can help with this. That’s why CHOICE is lobbying for changes to the way added sugars are labelled on foods.

“Clear, transparent food labelling is extremely important in helping people differentiate between healthy and unhealthy foods,” says Linda Przhedetsky, CHOICE policy and campaigns adviser.

“We see too many products laden with added sugar that is hiding under a range of names, and it’s incredible confusing. The system needs to change.”

Thanks to the work already done by CHOICE and other organisations, the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation has shown support for added sugar labelling on nutrition information panels.

But with no timeline in place, CHOICE is keeping up the pressure – and asking ministers to go even further to improve the Health Star Rating system.

Are you a fan of food pouches and other pre-packed foods for kids? Will this information affect your buying choices? Tell us in the comments below.

  • I wish I had the time to cook for him for every meal for this reason

    Reply

  • Yep, totally agree with this

    Reply

  • I only use a pouch when desperate. Pouches are great for on the go. I try to make my own pouches but sometimes that gets a little difficult so I always keep a store bought one just in case. It’s better than no food at all!

    Reply

  • I think like most foods everything is okay in moderation,

    Reply

  • i think it is when this stuff is used everyday and is not part of a balanced diet with homemade goodness is when it becomes a problem. Such a shame though that these companies have made it so convenient and yet now mum’s will feel so guilty for giving these products to their kids!

    Reply

  • Everything in moderation I say, cheers.

    Reply

  • If they are used only occassionally then there is not a problem. Fresh is best of course but we lead busy lives and that’s not always an option.

    Reply

  • They are good for times when you know its going to be too hard to pack and keep fresh your own food. But as a rule I only feed what I have made so I know whats in it

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  • I only use them when travelling.But always try to make food at home.

    Reply

  • I never used pouches when my girls were babies. I don’t even think they existed? I used jars if I went out somewhere as was more convenient but at home I always pureed my own or mashed it.

    Reply

  • They weren’t around when my son was a baby, but I always believed that they were good options in moderation.

    Reply

  • I don’t like these anyway as so many cases of mould in them that ive heard of before

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  • I loved pouches for convenience but they were secondary to home-pureed foods and fruits. I don’t think I bought fruit purees by memory

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  • I think they are a great idea to have in the cupboard for that odd night that you don’t have the time to make a meal for them yourself (or you fall ill). Not for every night I agree

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  • Gotta say I have no issues ducking into aldi to buy a few pouches as a snack when we are out and about. I’m not overly worried about the sugar content to be honest. My children eat enough of the right stuff, and I would rather them eat these than lollies or chocolate, every time they get hungry when out.


    • I totally agree with you, and am pretty much the same with my son

    Reply

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