Store-bought baby food might be an easy way to put fruit and veg on your infant’s menu, but according to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) Europe, commercial baby foods aren't quite as healthy as they're cracked up to be.
After analysing the nutritional content of baby foods sold in the UK, Denmark and Spain, the WHO Europe has expressed concern about the high levels of sugar in infant meals and is now calling for a ban on added sugars in foods for children under the age of 36 months.
Here we lift the lid on the WHO baby food report and see how you can diversify your bub’s diet to include healthier tastes.
How much sugar is in commercial baby food?
Although the WHO Europe found generally appropriate levels of salt, protein, fat and carbohydrate in the European baby foods, they also found a lot of sugar in those baby-sized meals.
In fruit purees, 70 per cent of the food calories were found to come from sugar. While parents intending to serve a savoury meal were in for a surprise too, because many savoury baby foods derived more than 15 per cent of their energy from sugars and were sweetened with fruit puree.
Overall, the WHO Europe found excessive levels of sugar in baby foods. Taking into account sugars added by manufacturers and those naturally found (e.g. in fruit juices), lead author, Dr João Breda says, 'In these commercial products we found a very significant amount have added sugar [and] … The total amount of sugar is also too high in many products.'
Whether sugar is added or not, earlier research also indicates that there is a strong skew towards sweet ingredients in baby food. A University of Glasgow study looked at 329 commercial baby foods and found that fruits (e.g. apple, banana and mango) and sweet vegetables (e.g. carrot and sweet potato/kumara) are used much more than bitter vegetables (e.g. spinach).
What are the downsides to sugary baby food?
University of Glasgow lead researcher, Dr Ada Garcia says that, 'Infants have an innate preference for sweet foods', and this means that baby foods made with fruit puree and sugary vegetables go down a treat.
However, while parents might feel happy that their babies are eating well and assume that all this fruit and veg is healthy, the WHO Europe is worried that frequently eaten sugar may affect babies’ first teeth and encourage a preference for sweet foods, which might lead to obesity-related disease later in life.
What are the WHO Europe's recommendations on baby food?
As well as being worried about the high sugar levels in baby food, the WHO Europe is also concerned about the labelling and marketing of store-bought baby food. In their report they've:
- Sought a ban on all added sugars (including fruit juice concentrate) in commercial baby foods.
- Recommended that no baby food should contain more than five per cent pureed fruit (by total weight), especially in savoury meals.
- Recommended that dry savoury snack foods (e.g. biscuits) shouldn't have more than 15 per cent of calories derived from sugar.
- Called for better labelling of the sugar in baby foods and more representative labelling (e.g. listing a main ingredient, such as apple puree, in the product name).
- Criticised products that are marketed as 'suitable at four months' or 'under six months' when the WHO guidelines recommend exclusive breastfeeding until a baby is six months old.
When babies do reach six months, Dr Breda says that it's important to diversify their diet and tastes. He explains that, 'It is really crucial you have products that are not only sweet products. If babies are exposed to different tastes from the beginning, they will be more willing to try other things.'
How can you diversify your baby’s diet and tastes?
Once your baby moves on to solids, its time expand their palate beyond sweet breastmilk and/or formula and encourage 'taste learning.'
Dr Garcia says that, 'Infants usually accept new foods and tastes well if vegetable tastes are introduced early, and this early experience influences food preference later in childhood.' She recommends that you promote a wider range of tastes, including, 'Less palatable bitter tastes' and keep offering them so your baby learns about all tastes, not just the sweet ones.
Homemade baby food is an easy and economical way to diversify your baby's diet, and Healthline suggests meals like pea puree, avocado puree and first spinach with white yams, as well as sweeter options such as banana puree and carrot puree.
If you do buy commercial baby food, take the time to compare nutritional information, look for less sugar and choose a variety of flavours, because even if your baby was born with a sweet tooth, they need to develop savoury ones too.